With the announcement of the final list of seven presidential candidates, most observers now believe that Ebrahim Raisi, the current head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, is the regime’s principal choice. Even with the changes in political weather that tend to happen in the days right before the vote, Raisi is widely expected to have an easy win on June 18.
Where did Ebrahim Raisi come from, and what is his political record to date? IranWire’s correspondent examines the long, grim trajectory of Iran’s likely next president.
Sayed Ebrahim Raeesol-Sadati, known as Ebrahim Raisi, was born in 1960 and is now 61 years old. A dyed-in-the-wool regime loyalist, he joined the newly-formed Iranian judiciary in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and with the exception of a few years from 2016 to 2019, when he served as custodian of Iran’s biggest endowment fund, Astan Quds Razavi, he has remained in the judiciary ever since.
In the last years of the Pahlavi era, the young Raisi had begun as a seminary student in the holy city of Mashhad, moving to Qom seminary at the age of 15. During this period, so he says, he made the acquaintance of a number of prominent clergymen: Grand Ayatollah Agha Mojtaba Tehrani, Ali Meshkini, Ayatollah Abolghasem Khazali Boroujerdi, Morteza Motahari – an ideologue of the Islamic Revolution – Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, and Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, who until his assassination in 1981 was perhaps second only to Ayatollah Khomeini in the post-revolutionary pecking order. Finally, he became close to the young Ali Khamenei: now Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Ebrahim Raisi had only just entered his 20s when he was appointed prosecutor of Karaj, a city close to Tehran, in 1981. A little later he also became prosecutor of Hamadan, holding down both jobs at once despite the fact that the two cities were more than 300km apart.
In August 1981, a bomb planted by opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) was detonated at the offices of then-Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar, killing him, President Mohammad Ali Rajaei and six other officials in the blast. In 1986, Raisi, who was now 26 years of age, was put in charge of following up on the case.
But the case was politically explosive, too. Figures on the political establishment’s right wing accused several known leftists on the prime minister’s payroll, including security staffers Behzad Nabavi and Khosro Tehrani, of having had a role in the plot. In the end, Ayatollah Khomeini summoned Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, then-head of Iran’s Supreme Court, then-Attorney General Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, and Ebrahim Raisi and ordered them to close the case.
Raisi must have made an impression regardless. Two years later in 1988, while serving as deputy prosecutor of Tehran, he was appointed by Khomeini – along with sharia legal expert Hossein Ali Nayri, Tehran prosecutor Morteza Eshraghi, and the Ministry of Intelligence’s then-representative to Evin Prison Mostafa Pourmohammadi – to a committee that later became known as the “death panel”. In the summer of that year, the death panel rubber-stamped the executions of thousands of political prisoners in Iran, who were rounded up and shot in hundreds-strong groups and then buried in mass graves.
After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Raisi drew closer to the new Supreme Leader and was promoted to prosecutor of Tehran that same year. In 1994 after five years in that role, he was appointed head of the judiciary’s General Inspection Office and remained there for 10 years. In the last two years, however, he was sent on a special mission to Mashhad, outside of the normal judicial process, to deal with people who had been arrested during recent anti-government protests. As a consequence, a number of demonstrators were killed extrajudicially in Raisi’s city of birth.
Finally in 2004, Raisi was appointed first deputy of the judiciary, working under then-Chief Justice Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. In 2014, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei was appointed to this position and Raisi replaced him as Iran’s new attorney general.
Up until this point in his career, Raisi had seldom talked to the press or featured in the news. But all this changed after he was made custodian of Astan Qods Razavi in 2015, especially because his father-in-law Ahmad Alamolhoda, an extremely conservative former Friday Imam of Mashhad, had been infamous for political stances such as opposing music concerts in his city. Not long after that, Raisi’s name began to be mentioned alongside that of then-Chief Justice Sadegh Amoli Larijani, in the context of becoming a possible successor to Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader.
In 2017, Raisi then stepped into the presidential race with the full support of Iran’s principalists, who saw him as their best chance against the incumbent President Hasan Rouhani. Throughout the pre-electoral campaign, Rouhani countered Raisi’s attacks on him by harking back to his 38-year record in the judiciary, stating his challenger knew nothing except how to send people to prison or to the gallows. In the end, Raisi lost the vote.
A year after this defeat, however, Khamenei made him head of the Iranian judiciary. Raisi wasted no time in trying to discredit his predecessor Sadegh Amoli Larijani, including by putting Ahmad Tabari, Larijani’s deputy for executive and financial affairs, on trial for bribery corruption. It paid dividends, with more and more Iranians coming to regard him as a natural successor to Khamenei – more so than Sadegh Larijani, whom Raisi had also defeated a week after his final judicial appointment, by 42 votes to 27, to become the elected deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which is itself empowered to appoint the Supreme Leader.
During his tenure as chief justice, Raisi has sought to portray himself as an anti-corruption crusader and launched a number of high-profile corruption trials to back this up. These trials, however, have mostly been conducted in chambers and with reporters not allowed to oversee the proceedings, scant detail has found its way out to the general public.
Now Ebrahim Raisi is widely regarded as the conservative frontrunner for Iran’s June 2021 presidential election. Many principalists expect him to follow the same route from presidency to Supreme Leadership that Khamenei enjoyed – although others still believe Mojtaba Khamenei, the incumbent’s son, has an equal chance of succeeding his father. There are also those that see a Raisi presidency, in the current dismal conditions, as a means of knocking him out of the field. This, too, has happened before.