Ebrahim Raisi: The Judge Linked To The Mass Execution Of Political Prisoners Is The Favorite To Be Iran's Next President

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Ebrahim Raisi, the front-runner in Iran's presidential election who is linked to serious human rights abuses, was virtually unknown to the majority of Iranians until just a few years ago.

But the hard-line cleric has since become a prominent figure in Iran with many believing his election to the presidency is a done deal amid speculation he might one day even succeed the country's highest authority: 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trusted By Khamenei, Connected To Power Centers

One reason for Raisi's notoriety is Khamenei's trust in the 60-year old, appointing him in 2016 as chairman of one of the country's wealthiest religious foundations and three years later as head of the powerful judiciary.

Raisi can also boast of connections with influential figures and centers of power. That includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whose commander, Major General Hossein Salami, praised him last year for battling corruption, saying his efforts have "blown the spirit of hope and trust" in society.

"If Raisi is elected president, Khamenei will have a better idea of to what extent he can trust him," Saeid Golkar, a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told RFE/RL. He added that the next four years could be Raisi's "internship."

"Khamenei is looking for an executive assistant to run the day-to-day politics, but not an independent political actor who can challenge him or his policy," said Golkar.

Rising Through The Ranks Of Iran's Hard-Line Judiciary

Raisi was born into a clerical family in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Iran's second largest. His exact schooling record is a bit unclear though it is known that he first studied at the Qom seminary at the age of 15. He is known as a hojatoleslam, or "authority on Islam," though some media outlets refer to him as an ayatollah.

Raisi began his career shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when he became the prosecutor-general of the city of Karaj, outside Tehran, when he was only 20.

He moved to the capital in 1985, where he was appointed as deputy prosecutor and later as Tehran's chief prosecutor. He also served as deputy judiciary chief and prosecutor-general.

Raisi is still the head of the powerful judiciary -- a tool used by the Iranian establishment to silence dissent -- while also running for president. He is also deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with monitoring the work of the supreme leader and choosing the next one.

'Khomeini Must Have Thought Raisi Was Good For That'

As deputy Tehran prosecutor, Raisi played a role in one of the darkest chapters of the Islamic republic: the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners following a fatwa by the founder of the republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Raisi was a member of the so-called "death committee," which interrogated prisoners about their religious beliefs and political affiliations and sent thousands of Iranians to their deaths, often after trials lasting a few minutes.

"Khomeini issued two fatwas for the creation of the committees, and clearly he wanted the executions, so he appointed hard-liners. He must have thought Raisi was a good person for that," historian Ervand Abrahamian, who wrote extensively about the killings, said in a 2017 interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Many view Raisi as a dangerous figure who could help consolidate the power of hard-liners and the country's feared security apparatus, including the intelligence branch of the IRGC, which has been behind the arrests of scores of activists, ecologists, and dual nationals.

"Although Raisi is the only cleric among [the approved candidates], the weight of the IRGC can be expected to further grow under his presidency," Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a scholar affiliated with the Free University of Berlin, told RFE/RL.

In 2017, many Iranians said they voted for President Hassan Rohani to prevent Raisi from becoming president. This time around, Iranians have become so disillusioned that many say they will stay away from the polls, with analysts predicting a low turnout that would favor Raisi, who received 38 percent of the votes in the 2017 presidential election.

Rising Profile After 2017 Presidential Defeat

Raisi's defeat did not end his political ambitions with the cleric using his tenure in the judiciary to raise his profile further, including through an anti-corruption campaign that some critics say he has used to sideline his potential rivals, namely former judiciary chief Sadegh Amoli Larijani, whose deputy, Ahmad Tabari, was put on trial for corruption.

Amoli Larijani, named among possible successors to Khamenei, is the brother of former parliament speaker Ali Larijani -- a potentially serious presidential contender to Raisi -- who was barred from running by the Guardians Council. The omnipotent council is accused of paving the way for an easy win for Raisi by barring real contenders from the race.

A Repressive Tenure

During his time in the judiciary, ecologists, activists, and many others have faced heavy prison sentences while pressure on the media has persisted, including in recent days when several journalists were reportedly threatened because of critical social media posts about Raisi.

In his campaign, Raisi continues to portray himself as a crusader against corruption and poverty while promising to counter "hopelessness" at a time of discontent over the ailing economy, which has been crushed by U.S. sanctions and widespread disillusionment in the country about the state of its politics and the poor prospects for change.

'On The Verge Of A People's Government'

Raisi has promised to create a "people's government" and a "strong Iran," while highlighting his humble origins and the death of his father when he was only 5 years old.

"I have tasted poverty, not merely heard about it," says one of his campaign's posters.

"Dear youth, if for any reason you are frustrated, you should know that with an active presence in the [election] arena, a powerful people's government can be formed," he said in a campaign video posted online.

During a recent visit to a cemetery to pay his respects to martyrs, Raisi was interviewed by a reporter with the state television controlled by hard-liners who addressed him as if he had been already elected.

"God willing, we're on the verge of a people's government," said the reporter, prompting online criticism and accusations that Raisi had been already "appointed" as president and that the regime was dropping any pretense about the upcoming vote being democratic.