The first decade of the 21st century saw the seemingly-unstoppable rise of Ebrahim Raisi up the ranks of Iran’s judiciary. By the end of the second decade, he had reached the very top. It might have happened earlier, had it not been for the fact that previous incumbent Sadegh Larijani had long been a favourite of Supreme Leader Ali Larijani, while Raisi’s credentials as a clergyman were thinner. How things change.
Back in 2004, when Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi was serving as chief justice of Iran, Raisi was appointed his first deputy. Then a year later, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power and with him, an administration that friendly towards the hardline judiciary.
Raisi’s name appeared twice on the preliminary and unofficial list of candidates for Ahmadinejad’s cabinet: first for Minister of Justice, and second for Intelligence Minister. In the end, Ahmadinejad chose jurist and prosecutor Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei to head up the Intelligence Ministry and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Raisi’s one-time colleague on Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1988 death panel, for the role of Interior Minister.
The decision was a controversial one. A month before Ahmadinejad took over, the state-controlled ISNA news agency had published a set of demands from a group known as the Islamic Iran Popular Front, which wanted the president-elect to choose Ebrahim Raisi as his Intelligence Minister. Nevertheless, Raisi stayed on in his judicial role.
During his first five years as first deputy of the judiciary, Raisi and his colleagues presided over a welter of human rights violations. These included the harassment and expulsion of college students who were critical of the government, the closure of the reformist students’ Office for Strengthening Unity, the creation of the now-infamous “morality police” to enforce mandatory veiling and a crackdown on the One Million Signatures campaign, which called for the repeal of discriminatory laws against women.
The apotheosis of the judiciary’s newly-revived role in the brutal suppression of dissidents, however, came about during protests over the disputed 2009 presidential election result, which had seen Ahmadinejad into a second term.
At the outset of the protests, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi was still in place as chief justice and mid-way through the tumult, he was replaced by Sadegh Amoli Larijani. Throughout the events that ensued, both Raisi and Mohseni-Ejei remained in post.
Thousands of Iranians were rounded up, detained and tortured for their part in pro-democracy rallies. The judiciary also signed off on the executions of Arash Rahmanipour and Mohammad-Reza Ali-Zamani, two men arrested on charges of working with a pro-monarchy group before the protests started. The Tehran prosecutor nevertheless claimed that they had been arrested because of their role in inciting the protests.
Even though Mohammad-Javad Larijani, then the country’s deputy chief justice for international affairs, acknowledged that the two had been arrested months earlier, Ebrahim Raisi brazenly defended their execution.
“The two who were executed and the other nine who will be executed soon were definitely arrested during recent unrest,” he told a gathering of the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij in Qom in February 2010. “Every one of them was connected to a counter-revolutionary movement and their motive for participating in the unrests was to sow discord and to topple the regime.”
In response to those who had called for “Islamic mercy” and “forgiveness” in dealing with the perpetrators, he replied: “We are going to go all the way to deal with the seditionists and uproot the sedition.”
A number of the arrested protesters were sent to Kahrizak Detention Center near Tehran and, after atrocities at Kahrizak and the deaths of some of the detainees under torture came to light, Raisi was one of the three members of a panel ordered by the judiciary chief to specifically investigate accusations of rape.
But Raisi called what had happened at the detention center “marginal” and said that the main point was the “great injustice done to the Islamic regime”. He and the other two panel members said the rape allegations were fabricated and meant to divert public opinion, calling instead for decisive action against the complainers, who they said had “obfuscated the mind of the public” and had “libeled and slandered” the regime by “spreading falsehoods”.
When Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two reformist candidates in the 2009 presidential election, and Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard were put under house arrest in February 2011, Raisi first said that they would be put on trial. But the three are still under house arrest to this day, and have never had their day in court, while Raisi continued to malign them at every opportunity. In 2014, he declared the “devil” was their master and the regime had treated them with mercy.
In the same year, after 10 years as first deputy to the judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi finally traded places with Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei and was appointed Iran’s prosecutor-general.
Guardianship of Astan Quds Razavi
In March 2016, after the death of Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, Raisi was appointed the new guardian of Astan Quds Razavi: the biggest religious foundation in Iran, based in the holy city of Mashhad. His new job was a high-profile one. This vast parastatal foundation manages endowments to the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, a global symbol of the Shia faith, in the province that was also the birthplace of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Raisi tried to take a direction different from that of his predecessor by sharing the vast facilities of the foundation with the people of Mashhad. Under Vaez-Tabasi, the foundation had had a reputation for corruption and people close to Raisi credit him with trying to combat corruption after he took over.
He removed Mehdi Azizian, the deputy guardian of Astan Quds Razavi and Vaez-Tabasi’s brother-in-law, and appointed him as his personal advisor instead. In 2017, it was then announced that Azizian had fled Iran over financial malfeasance. An official at Astan Quds Razavi credited Raisi with removing Azizian but the details of the case were never made public, and were that the case, it is unclear why Azizian was not simply arrested.
The Failed Run for Presidency
Raisi had said no other job could compare with “serving Imam Reza”. But this did not stop him from running for president in 2017. He claimed that he had been “asked numerous times” to do this and “until very recently” he had refused to step into the “arena”.
This, however, was not Raisi’s first attempt to win an elected representative’s role either. In 1997, when reformist President Mohammad Khatami took over, Raisi had joined Iran’s Militant Clergy Association despite being a member of the judiciary. In those days, the Association was the most influential conservative political group in Iran and staunchly opposed the reformists.
Raisi has since said that he joined the group at the behest of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani and the then-Chief Justice Mohammad Yazdi: two of the most powerful principalist clergymen at the time. However, Yazdi’s name has since been removed from later versions of his online biography.
In February 2007, with the support of the Association and the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, Raisi was elected to the Assembly of Experts as the representative of South Khorasan. Two years later he became a member of its executive committee. He would later return to the Assembly of Experts in 2019 a week after his appointment as judiciary chief.
For some time before he formally ran for presidency in 2017, everything Raisi did in Mashhad and on behalf of the Imam Reza Shrine had acquired the flavor of an electoral campaign, including the special receptions he held for pilgrims. When he did then enter the presidential race, key members of his campaign staff were former members of Ahmadinejad’s administration such as Ali Nikzad and Masoud Mir Kazemi.
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former mayor of Tehran and the current speaker of the Iranian parliament, withdrew from the running and threw his support behind Raisi instead. A large number of principalist figures attended his campaign gatherings and speeches to publicly display their support for him.
One of the most controversial events during Raisi’s 2017 presidential campaign was his meeting with underground Iranian rapper Amir Hossein Maghsoudlou, known as Tataloo, who later fled the country. This publicity stunt astonished observers; even Raisi’s supporters were outraged, to the point that four years later his campaign manager Ali Nikzad claimed that even he had been against it.
In the end, Raisi lost the 2017 race to Hassan Rouhani, who was elected for a second term. He did not congratulate Rouhani on his victory and instead claimed “violations of the law” had taken place before and during elections.
The Judiciary Chief and the “Anti-Corruption” Crusader
One year after losing the election, Ayatollah Khamenei unexpectedly put Raisi at the head of the judiciary of the Islamic Republic. Since then Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and other conservative-controlled media outlets have done their best to portray him as a hero in the country’s fight against corruption.
One of Raisi’s first actions as chief justice was to remove Akbar Tabari, a deputy head of Iran’s judiciary under Sadegh Larijani. A few months later, Tabari was charged with corruption and money laundering and, after a noisy trial, was sentenced to 31 years in prison. Observers saw this heavily-publicized court case as an attempt by Raisi to discredit his predecessor, and also to remove him as a would-be contender to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader.
In November 2019, a few days before nationwide mass protests were triggered by a threefold hike in gas prices, the US Treasury published the names of nine Iranians who had been freshly added to its sanctions list. Raisi’s name appeared on the list next to that of Mojtaba Khamenei, the best-known son of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Raisi, the Treasury correctly noted, had had “administrative oversight over the executions of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime, and the torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations”. The ruling also cited his role as a member of Khomeini’s death panel, which ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
As chief justice, Raisi remained true to form. Amongst other things, he oversaw the executions of a number of people who took part in protests in 2017, 2018 and 2019. On August 5, 2020, Mostafa Salehi, who had taken part in protests in December 2017 and January 2018, was hanged in Iran. And, in September 2020, Navid Afkari, a wrestler who was first arrested during protests in August 2018, was executed in prison in illegal circumstances and on murder charges for which no evidence had been put forward.
Three months later on December 12, Ruhollah Zam, the founder and editor of the Amad News Telegram channel, was executed after being lured from Paris to Baghdad and kidnapped. The dissident journalist was hit with no fewer than 17 charges and forced to give a televised confession in a move that horrified the international community.
The Special Clergy Court
Back in 2012, Khamenei also appointed Raisi as the head of Islamic Republic’s Special Clerical Court, which arbitrates on the behaviour of members of the clergy. The most controversial case of the many it heard under Raisi was that of Ahmad Montazeri, son of the late, influential Shia theologian Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.
In November 2016, the court sentenced Ahmad Montazeri to 21 years in prison for publishing an audio recording of a meeting between Ayatollah Montazeri and the 1988 death panel, which of course had included Raisi. In the end, the sentence was suspended by Khamenei at the behest of Ayatollah Musa Shabiri Zanjani, a religious authority in Qom.
“Mr. Raisi!” Hassan Rouhani would proclaim during his 2017 election campaign. “You are a judge. You must see what you have done to the clergy.”
Another key case heard by the Special Clerical Court under Raisi led to the defrocking of Hasan Aghamiri, who had come to be known known as the “Instagram Clergyman” for his millions of social media followers and unconventional religious views.
A Presidential Candidate with No Serious Competition
Now, after a previous failed presidential bid in 2017, Raisi looks squarely set to take over the Islamic Republic’s top executive role in June 2021. This time around, thanks to the Guardian Council, he has no serious competitors.
Mehdi Nasiri, a prominent hardline journalist who served as editor of Kayhan in the 1980s and now supports Rouhani, wrote after the Guardian Council disqualified Raisi’s viable competitors that his position had effectively been sabotaged – it suggested Raisi needed the favor, and may also have scuppered a future bid by him to become Supreme Leader.
“If we consider Ayatollah Raisi's entry into the elections as the result of a setup to discredit him in public opinion,” he wrote, “this scenario has now been implemented by the engineering of the Guardian Council. Goodbye Ebrahim."
In an audio recording obtained by IranWire, Faezeh Hashemi, a prominent reformist activist and daughter of the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, appeared to think differently: “I don’t see a direct connection between the disqualifications in this period and the leadership succession,” she said.
“There are now so many problems in the country that whoever becomes president will end up less popular. You see the situation of Mr. Rouhani now: how dissatisfied everyone is, how many people are against him. See what has become of his popularity among the people.
“The next president is likely to find himself in the same situation, because the problems are extraordinary and widespread. Becoming president is now a negative move. They cannot put someone whom the public hates in the leadership position.”
If this is the case, then the other hopefuls wanting to succeed Khamenei have pushed Raisi into an arena that could well eliminate him as a future competitor. On the other hand, if does win the presidency and can entrench and extend his already-considerable power, it will be him who can eliminate them.