Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 20 May 2024



Opinion | In Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s clerics have groomed and promoted their ruthless enforcer


This month, Iran held the most boring — and most consequential — presidential election in its history. Boring because the election was rigged virtually from the start. What made it consequential is not because the winner, Ebrahim Raisi, is a gruesome and unapologetic killer who has spent his entire career inside the regime’s coercive institutions. Nor is it because Raisi is the first Iranian president to fit that description. Both former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rouhani, the current president, were instrumental in building and using the Iranian police state. Unlike Raisi, who has had little involvement in foreign affairs, these two supposedly “pragmatic” clerics advanced operations abroad that killed Americans, Israelis and Jews around the world.

What is instead most striking about Raisi is that he has been groomed for this moment — a moment when the regime teeters on the brink of illegitimacy and needs a brutal enforcer. Raisi isn’t a clever, well-read mullah, as were so many of the Islamic republic’s founding fathers. But he is the quintessence of a mature Islamic Republic of Iran: He’s all about compulsion sustaining a creed that ever-smaller numbers of Iranians embrace. The mullahs’ hope is that Raisi is ruthless enough to overcome rising resistance to their rule.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, an Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency from 1985 to 1994, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Last Shah: America, Iran and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.”

Illustration by Martin Satí for The Washington Post, based on photos by Getty Images

This election, if you can even call it that, was really all about who will succeed the 82-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the rahbar, the overlord of Iran’s theocracy. Khamenei has long eyed Raisi as his successor, and his promotion to the presidency presages his ultimate ascension. The theocracy’s stage-managed presidential election — now utterly stripped of any democratic pretense — has deepened the legitimacy crisis that has plagued the regime since 1999, when it crushed the “Islamic left,” first-generation revolutionaries who wanted to believe that the state could reform itself. With Khamenei and Raisi at the helm, or with Raisi as the supreme leader, it’s not hard to envision the police state pushing a disgruntled, angry society to the breaking point.

The Rise of Raisi

The story of Ebrahim Raisi tracks that of modern Iran itself. He was born in 1960 to a clerical family in Mashhad, in northeast Iran, now home to 3 million people. He began his theological training in the shrine city of Qom at age 15. Qom’s seminary was then the hotbed of anti-shah agitation, and many aspiring mullahs looked to the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for guidance and inspiration. Raisi was a member of the Haqqani Circle, a radical school of thought that produced many disciples who would go on to work in key sectors of the Islamic republic, particularly its repressive institutions.

After the improbable success of Iran’s 1979 revolution, the coalition of secularists, liberals, Marxist Muslims and clerically led Islamists that displaced the Pahlavi monarchy soon collapsed, with competing factions fighting on the streets. Amid this power struggle, Khomeini (by now, returned to Iran) needed enforcers — men who had little compunction about ordering death sentences in religious tribunals. While still in his early 20s, Raisi was appointed prosecutor of Karaj, near Tehran, which saw its share of opposition activity and, after his arrival, executions by firing squad. Thus began his career on the republic’s dark side.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini visits Kish, Iran, in July 1979. (Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Khomeini would often summon Raisi when he needed special missions completed with efficiency and cruelty. This led to his service on the so-called death commission in 1988, which still defines his legacy. As Khomeini approached the end of his life, he grew apprehensive about the vitality of his revolution. He feared the Islamic republic would become less religiously driven in his absence and decided to test the mettle of his disciples. In 1988, shortly after the cease-fire with Iraq, the rahbar ordered one more bloodletting. In a span of few months, thousands of leftist prisoners were executed; the exact number is unknown, but most experts say a minimum of 5,000 were killed. Raisi was one of the commission judges overseeing the slaughter. Apostasy and the denigration of Islam were the usual charges hurled at the victims in hearings that often lasted minutes.

The 1988 executions sparked a debate within the regime, just as Khomeini had intended. The supreme leader wanted to separate the true believers from the skeptics. His heir-apparent, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, objected to the killings, and in a secret recording released in 2016, he can be heard chastising Raisi and his fellow executioners. “In my view, the biggest atrocity in the Islamic republic, for which the history will condemn us, has been committed at your hands, and in future your names will go down in history as criminals.” Montazeri fell from grace and ultimately died in 2009 under house arrest. Raisi publicly defended the killings as “one of the proud achievements of the system.”

Khomeini died in 1989, but his successor, Khamenei, also found Raisi a useful agent. In a succession of promotions, Raisi became the head of the General Inspection Office as well as a member of the Special Court of the Clergy, which is perhaps the most important institution in the republic: It is responsible for prosecuting troublesome mullahs.

Then came a series of harder tests: In the 1990s, the political elite fragmented over the reform movement led by President Muhammad Khatami, who called for greater harmony between religious convictions and democratic principles. Lower-level government officials and intellectuals aligned with Khatami were bolder and more explicit in their ambitions. But Raisi displayed a steady hand in battling the reformers. The judiciary and the intelligence services jailed dissidents, shuttered reformist newspapers and conducted targeted assassinations.

In 2009, the Islamic republic faced a popular insurrection. The fraudulent presidential election that returned populist, conservative firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power sparked the pro-democracy Green Movement, which, in turn, shook the foundations of the theocracy. Once more, many stalwarts of the revolution proved unsteady, including former president Rafsanjani, who was essentially purged. Not so Raisi, who as chief deputy of the judiciary remained a reliable critic of those who showed the protesters any quarter, to say nothing of the protesters themselves. “Those who have proposed the elections were fraudulent,” ruled Raisi, “and created doubt in the public’s mind have undoubtedly committed a grave crime and naturally will have to answer for the crime they have committed.” As late as 2014, Raisi scolded his fellow conservatives for going soft on Green Movement leaders, who had remained under house arrest. “The system of the Islamic Republic has treated the leaders of sedition with kindness. …Those who sympathize with the leaders of sedition should know that the Iranian nation will never go through this kind of oppression.”

Iranian opposition supporters chant slogans in support of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi (portrait), during a rally in Tehran on Sept. 18, 2009. (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

The regime learned lessons from the Green Movement. Stuffing ballot boxes provoked million-man marches on the streets of Tehran; henceforth, the theocracy would manipulate elections by narrowing the choice of candidates.

By 2016, there were unmistakable public signs that Khamenei was grooming Raisi to succeed him. When it comes to personnel, Khamenei has always displayed a keen eye for talent and loyalty. And Raisi’s promotions all required the personal approval of the supreme leader.

But to rise in the Islamic republic’s theocracy, Raisi needed to move beyond the regime’s courts and dungeons and burnish his managerial skills. Khamenei appointed him as the head of one of Iran’s largest charitable organizations, the Astan-e Qods Foundation in Mashhad, which runs the Imam Reza Shrine. The shrine is visited by millions of pilgrims a year and has an estimated $15 billion in assets. Through the foundation, the supreme leader has access to vast discretionary funds. This job gave Raisi a more benign public profile as well as the power of patronage. He also became an important player in the regime’s shadowy financial empire.

Nonetheless, his public image remained flat: Raisi managed to win only 38.5 percent of the vote in his first run for office in 2017, getting trounced by the incumbent, Rouhani. As a consolation prize, he became the head of the judiciary, where he brandished his credentials as a corruption fighter, which in the Islamic republic means he became responsible for harassing those who’ve fallen out of favor.

In the 2021 election, Khamenei sacrificed popular legitimacy to ensure that a reliable disciple won. After the protest movements of 2017-2020, when even the poor started taking to the streets to express their anger, an elderly supreme leader likely wanted to see a version of himself in the presidency — a cleric with a proven capacity to repress and liquidate those willing to challenge the theocracy. An Iranian president doesn’t have much power — the rahbar has such a large shadow government that it has shrunk the influence and perks of the presidency. Nonetheless, in troubled times, if the supreme leader were to die, having an ideologically sound and bureaucratically accomplished cleric as president would guarantee continuity.

Which helps explain why, this year, the Guardian Council disqualified a high number of presidential candidates — not only did “moderates” get axed, but even the hard-line former speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, was removed from the ballot. As a result, Raisi ran nearly uncontested, with no real competitors. He ran an uninspiring campaign, talking mostly about corruption and the need for sound management. Crisscrossing the country, he often visited prisons. The presidential debates, which sometimes spark public curiosity and social media buzz, were insipid. The handpicked candidates united in attacking Rouhani, who has become unpopular, especially within official circles where mocking him has become routine. In the end, with half the electorate staying home and approximately 3.7 million Iranians turning in blank or protest ballots, Raisi was declared the winner.

Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard called Raisi’s victory “a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran” and called for investigation of “his involvement in past and ongoing crimes under international law.”

A dilemma for Biden

The Islamic republic was never a typical authoritarian state: Embedded in its structure are a series of elected institutions. If in previous presidential races the Guardian Council may have pruned the choice of candidates, the public got some diversity and occasionally a provocative candidate who rattled the establishment such as Ahmadinejad, or historic men of the revolution, like Rafsanjani, who outshone Khamenei. The elections may not have altered the essential demarcations of power, but they offered the Iranian people an acceptable and orderly means of expressing their grievances. The regime even tolerated some critical press.

Thus, the genius of the Islamic republic was that it offered the masses an opportunity to participate in national affairs — while being cleverly hemmed in on all sides by clerical fiat. An Iranian could cast a ballot that might actually have a small impact on his life. (Khatami’s victory in 1997 for a year or two softened the surveillance of the morals police; Ahmadinejad’s first triumph gave lower-class Iranians a fillip of pride and increased welfare payments.) The elected institutions of Iran may not have governed the theocracy, but they did provide an important safety valve.

Raisi’s win in a fully rigged election strips the system of its off-ramps. The once-popular reformist notion that the theocracy could liberalize itself through its own constitutional provisions has died — except perhaps abroad among Western leftists. The Republic of Virtue is drowning in corruption and class divisions that are as pronounced as those in the last days of the shah. The government and the crony-capitalist class have never generated sufficient jobs. Khamenei’s idea of a “resistance economy,” in which Iran somehow weans itself off oil, relies on internal markets and trades heavily with China, has proved insufficient and impractical. A mismanaged pandemic has aggravated all of these problems.

The clerical oligarchs have no answers to Iran’s most convulsive dilemmas. They intend to rule by brute force, in part because they have minimal hold on a public that no longer can be counted on to choose the divine path over all others. As we learned from leaked conversations of Revolutionary Guard commanders, after the pro-democracy Green Movement was crushed, the regime came to see itself as unattractive to ever larger swaths of the population. The gap between state and society has never been wider. In Raisi, a political cleric recently promoted to “ayatollah,” the state has groomed, promoted and found its enforcer.

The Iranian people are hardly docile subjects. A nation that saw massive protests once a decade now sees them more frequently. In the latest nationwide revolts of 2019 and 2020, sparked by a drop in fuel subsidies, even the working classes joined the protests. Iran’s ethnic minorities, who probably make up 50 percent of the country’s population, have also become increasingly vocal in expressing their grievances. And the demonstrators, both Persian and non-Persian, have become explicit in their opposition to the very nature of the clerical regime. Given the violence unleashed by the security forces in 2019, Khamenei and his men obviously view these demonstrations as potential rebellions.

Protesters set fires as they block roads during a protest against gasoline price hikes in Tehran on Nov. 16, 2019. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Raisi is an awkward, perhaps paralyzing, problem for the Biden administration’s diplomatic strategy. First, there is the issue of human rights, which the White House says is a new priority for the United States. A revived Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which would release tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, will perforce be transacted with a new president who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in no uncertain terms in 2019: “Previously, as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran. Raisi participated in the so-called ‘death commission’ that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.”

And then there is the substance of the nuclear deal. The talks in Vienna will likely succeed and both parties will resume their compliance with an accord whose key provisions are rapidly expiring. The White House insists that once the agreement is revived, it will seek to remedy its deficiencies with additional discussions that will extend the deal’s timelines and even address Iran’s malign regional activities and its ever-improving ballistic missiles. Raisi has made it clear, however, that he won’t concede to any additional agreements. And Raisi isn’t clever: He isn’t going to argue with Khamenei about the wisdom of short-term nuclear concessions for long-term economic power. Raisi, like Khamenei, thinks first and foremost about culture and nefarious, debilitating foreign influences.

These two clerics, who will likely reinforce each other’s hardest impulses, both understand what Washington appears to have missed: The era of arms-control diplomacy has ended. The Islamic republic’s nuclear trajectory will not be impacted by further negotiated restraints.

In the coming months, many in Washington will assure themselves that at least this nuclear accord imposes some limits on the clerical regime’s ambitions. The program, we will be assured, is back in the box even as Iran’s atomic infrastructure grows in sophistication and size. The arms-controllers and proponents of accommodation will surely dust off their old talking points. The opening to China will be invoked. Strategic breakthroughs, we will be reminded, require compacts with unsavory actors. Some may even go further and argue that only a hard-liner with close ties to Khamenei can negotiate an accord.

Such postulations, however, miss the reason Raisi was elevated to the presidency. He is there to seal the system, not open it. Repression at home and imperialism abroad remain the regime’s essential priorities. Such ambitions require Shiite proxy forces across the region, missile deployments and the ultimate strategic weapon. The notion of trading carrots and sticks is abhorrent to a man who abjures compromise with enemies both near and abroad.

Khamenei’s and Raisi’s designs will, however, make the Islamist system more vulnerable to internal unrest. Sanctions relief will provide some respite to the regime’s internal problems. American arms control will pave a bit longer path to the Iranian bomb while allowing the clerical regime a much-needed financial cushion against its own imperialism and incompetence.

But whatever the Biden administration does, it won’t change an irrefragable truth that bedevils the Iranian theocracy: A regime that does not address the grievances and expectations of its citizens will confront, if the past is future, increasing opposition. In the past few years, Iran has been rocked by demonstrations driven by all the social classes. The big dilemma for the Biden administration may not be the potential for arms control in the 21st century but how to deal with a mass murderer facing a mass uprising.

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi holds a news conference at Shahid Beheshti conference hall in Tehran on June 21. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

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