Ebrahim Raisi Isn’t Who You Think He Is
Iran’s next president is a conservative obsessed with power—but less of a zealot than he seems.
In Iran, the final pieces have fallen into place for a momentous power grab, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the country and its relations with the rest of the world. Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi has emerged victorious in this weekend’s election for the presidency, as expected, and is thus entitled to a four-year term in that office. But he will also be widely recognized as the presumed successor to Ali Khamenei as the next supreme leader of the Islamic Republic—a position he may occupy for life.
But if it’s suddenly important to understand Raisi’s worldview, it’s also not easy to gain access to it. Internationally, Raisi is widely referred to as a “hardliner,” but that is a label that obscures as much as it reveals. To reduce Raisi to a zealot is to miss the most overriding component of his political persona: his shrewd opportunism. This is the quality that best explains his rise—and best predicts his style of leadership going forward.
Significantly, Raisi emerged as the overwhelming frontrunner in the presidential vote, not by rallying the public with a compelling vision, but in large part because the field was effectively cleared for him by close political allies. In late May, the 12-member Guardian Council—Iran’s election watchdog, many of whose members are associated with Raisi—barred prominent moderate and pro-reform figures from running in the race. Some still clung to the hope that Khamenei would eventually intervene, just as he had done in 2005, to reinstate some of the disqualified candidates. Khamenei eventually called on the Guardian Council to “make amends” for its “unjust” conduct, but without demanding any specific candidate to be reinstated; the Guardian Council’s response to this plea was a platitudinal statement devoid of any real substance.
The Guardian Council’s purge was an immense boon to Raisi’s election bid in two important ways. Firstly, and most manifestly, it rid the race of his most serious rivals. Secondly, but perhaps even more importantly, the disqualifications dampened public enthusiasm, demoralizing those segments of the electorate whose participation has traditionally been crucial for moderate or reform-minded candidates. This made it far more difficult for Abdolnaser Hemmati and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the sole centrist and moderate candidates not winnowed from the electoral race, to galvanize the populace and garner their vote come election day. Mehralizadeh would drop out of the race just two days before the vote.
None of this is to deny Raisi’s very real and formidable support base. Not long after losing in the 2017 presidential elections to then incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, Raisi was appointed by Khamenei as the chief of the judiciary. Raisi also gained significant popularity during his custodianship of Astan Quds Razavi from 2016 to 2019, one of Iran’s wealthiest religious endowments, which has thousands of employees as well as its owns institutions, landholdings, businesses throughout the country.
In the final years of his time as Judiciary Chief, Raisi built his political profile by initiating a series of sweeping judicial reforms that commuted punishments for crimes ranging from an inability to pay dowry to drug trafficking to issuance of dud checks. Such penal reforms allowed large numbers of convicts to evade imprisonment and even the death penalty—and bolstered Raisi’s own popularity. His name and face have featured regularly in public debates and national media, turning him into a readily recognizable figure across the country. This name recognition—not any reputation as a hardliner—vaulted him to the front of the polls before official campaigning had even started.
The presidential campaign only hints at the ways that Raisi will likely govern as Iran’s president.
Understandably, a great deal of commentary on Raisi focuses primarily on his reputation earned as a member in the aptly named “Death Committee” that oversaw the secret execution of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, described by eminent historian Ervand Abrahamian as “an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history—unprecedented in form, content, and intensity.” Courtesy of an audio recording that first went viral in August 2016, many Iranians now associate Raisi with this dark chapter of their country’s history. In the infamous tape, he and other committee members come under a blistering attack from the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri for their role in the executions. They are heard as they haggle with Montazeri, deputy supreme leader at the time, to obtain permission for the execution of 200 additional prisoners. An audibly scandalized Montazeri flatly refuses to grant any legitimacy to the men’s deeds, calling the executions the most serious crime in the history of the Revolution.
The executions carried out by the “Death Committee” cannot be denied. But Raisi’s participation, beyond the specific brutality at hand, reveals important insights into his political character. It’s fair to wonder what a young man of 27 was doing deliberating over the lives of dissidents in the first place. The leaked tapes suggest that he wasn’t particularly invested with ideological passion or certainty. When Montazeri refuses to grant authorization for 200 prisoners to be dispatched to their graves, a voice that may be Raisi’s quickly accepts his superior’s decision. Careful to avoid being at loggerheads with then deputy leader Montazeri, the voice says: “Okay, we will obey.” (The full details surrounding the executions, including its exact timeline, continue to remain nebulous.)
Such postures of fealty are what have been most consistent in Raisi’s four-decade career. He is a man driven first and foremost by a profound devotion to the acquisition of power rather a fanatical adherence to ideology. Whatever the political times demand—and from whichever direction those demands emanate—he is ready to respond. Thirty years later after his participation in the Death Committee, when his goal as judiciary was to appeal to the public rather than his revolutionary superiors ahead of running for president, he styled himself as a penal reformer by bringing down the severity of punishments, driving up the number of clemencies, and turning public hangings into a rarity.
If elected, Raisi will govern in cognizance that his presidency is the outcome of an election designed to ensure his victory. Indeed, his reaction to the Guardian Council’s vetting of candidates shows he has already taken note of the embarrassing optics of a race so flagrantly rigged in his favor: Shortly after the final list of candidates was announced, Raisi claimed he had been lobbying to make the elections more competitive. (One cannot help but question the sincerity of this claim given Raisi’s close association with those in charge of the vetting process.) Mindful that it lacks the support of large swathes of the population, a Raisi administration may also find itself lacking the confidence to withstand censure, making it more likely to lash out heavy-handedly at critics.
This insecurity is rendered all the more combustible by Raisi’s punitive character. Significantly, he is the first Iranian president whose executive background is vastly dwarfed by his nearly four decades of experience in the penal realm. Indeed, while attempting to highlight this during the 2017 elections, Rouhani memorably described Raisi as one of “those who have known nothing but executions and imprisonments.” This aspect of Raisi’s resume will likely influence how he will respond to popular upheavals—namely, with the punitive instruments most familiar to him. It should be borne in mind that as president, Raisi would be able to fall back on his allies in the judiciary, many of whom owe their professional success to Raisi himself. In a taste of what to expect under his presidency, activists and journalists were recently contacted by the judiciary and warned against expressing critical views about the frontrunner in the presidential elections.
Should the current Supreme Leader Khamenei, now 82, pass away during a Raisi presidency, the cleric will be in a unique position to greatly influence the process of picking the next leader—so much so that he himself will be one of the favorites to succeed Khamenei. He will at once be kingmaker and potential king. This reality will likely humble the various political actors into meekness and dampen the resolve of would-be dissenters. And with the prospect of succeeding the current leader in sight, the future president will have every incentive to fight tooth and nail to consolidate and expand power, making it all the more likely that he will rule with an iron fist.
The manner of Raisi’s ascent to the presidency, his highly punitive temperament, and the question of Khamenei’s succession foster a fertile political environment for a future Raisi administration, and with it Iran, to sink deeper into the mire of authoritarian tendencies.
A Raisi presidency will also impact Iran’s international relations—though not always for the reasons outsiders imagine.
Iran’s public diplomacy will be one of the first casualties of a Raisi presidency. For many both inside and outside Iran, his name is forever tainted by the 1988 executions. If an anti-Iran axis similar to the one spearheaded by former President Donald Trump reemerges in the coming years, it will find a powerful propaganda tool personified by the Iranian president himself. Demonizing the country and forming an international consensus against it will be far easier than it has been during the Rouhani years.
This is not mere conjecture. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, from 2005 to 2013, his bellicose harangues on topics such as Israel and the Holocaust proved immensely useful in isolating Iran on the world stage. So marked was Ahmadinejad’s utility as Israel’s favourite scarecrow that former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy called him “our greatest gift.” “We couldn’t carry out a better operation at the Mossad than to put a guy like Ahmadinejad in power in Iran,” Halevy professed. Ahmadinejad, he gloated, had “proved to everyone that Iran of today is an Iran that is impossible to live with. [Ahmadinejad] unites the entire world against Iran.”
A similar dynamic will play out with Raisi as president. Iran’s rivals will have a quintessential bugbear at their disposal.
In a telling sign of things to come, Mojtaba Amini, the producer of a TV series that sought to discredit chief diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif and his diplomatic efforts, has been given a prominent role in the Raisi campaign. It is fair therefore to assume that with Raisi at the helm of government, Iran will most likely lose one of its most effective national security instruments—namely, Zarif. The U.S.-educated foreign minister played an instrumental role in the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). His diplomatic prowess was keenly felt during Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. During this period, the nimble-minded, quick-witted, and articulate foreign minister was a constant thorn in the side of the Trump-led axis, which sought to isolate Iran and unravel the nuclear deal. Iran’s rivals and foes will no doubt take a collective sigh of relief following Zarif’s unseating. A powerful weapon in their enemy’s armory will have been decommissioned without the need for a single shot to be fired. Indeed, when Zarif announced his resignation in 2019, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could hardly contain his heart’s elation. “Zarif is gone,” he tweeted at the time, “good riddance.”
Though Raisi’s investiture will most likely be followed by a change at the helm of Iran’s foreign policy, a certain level of continuity is to be expected at the level of grand strategy. For instance, during the last round of the televised presidential debates, Raisi explicitly reaffirmed Iran’s commitment to implementing the JCPOA: “We are committed to the JCPOA … but the JCPOA needs a strong government to implement it.” Continuity is also borne out of the fact that the government is not the sole determinant of foreign policy. Iran’s Leader exerts immense influence over matters of national security, including foreign policy.
But the mere existence of a strategy, on JCPOA or otherwise, is one thing. Its successful meting out, which requires competent diplomats and technocrats, is quite another. Regardless of the foreign policy outlook of Raisi’s team, the shortage of skilled diplomats in key positions could potentially disrupt the gears of the country’s diplomacy. This very scenario became a reality during the presidency of Ahmadinejad when Manouchehr Mottaki, currently a foreign policy aide to Raisi, assumed the role of Iran’s top diplomat. During this period, a lack of technocratic competence could at times undermine the very strategy it was meant to implement.
If Raisi’s career proves anything, it’s that he has carefully cultivated powerful allies and he will not lightly abide being denied a path to power, even if it disrupts Iran’s existing political order. A crucial question is what will happen if the ultimate guardian of the present system Khamenei—the man Raisi might one day hope to succeed—attempts, or is able, to get in his way.
Sajjad Safaei is a postdoc fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.
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