Iranian presidential favorite is hardline US sanctioned judge


Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi attends an election debate at a television studio in Tehran, Iran, June 8, 2021. Morteza Fakhri Nezhad / YJC / WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Ebrahim Raisi’s record of staunch loyalty to ruling clerics in Iran helps explain why the senior judge is a favorite in Friday’s presidential election, a contest that authorities have limited almost exclusively to die-hard candidates like him.

A victory for Raisi, 60, a relentless critic of the West whose political boss is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would increase his chances of one day succeeding Khamenei at the top of power, analysts said.

Accused by criticism of human rights abuses dating back decades – allegations his defenders deny – Raisi was appointed by Khamenei to the post of chief magistrate in 2019.

Later that year, Raisi ruled the legal system as authorities used the courts to quell the bloodiest political turmoil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran claims its legal system is independent and is not not influenced by political interests.

“Raisi is a pillar of a system that imprisons, tortures and kills people for daring to criticize state policies,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based human rights group , the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), in a statement.

Iran denies torturing prisoners.

An intermediary figure in the hierarchy of Iran’s Shia Muslim clergy, Raisi has been a senior judicial official for most of his career. He was Deputy Chief Justice for 10 years, before being appointed Attorney General in 2014.

Earning a reputation as a feared security hawk, he was one of four judges who oversaw the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, according to rights groups. Amnesty International put the number of executions at around 5,000, saying in a 2018 report that “the actual number may be higher”.


CHRI said those executed were “buried in anonymous mass graves and individuals, based on the committee’s determination of their ‘loyalty’ to the newly established Islamic Republic. These prisoners had already been tried and were serving their sentences of jail”.

Iran has never recognized the mass executions. However, some clerics said the trials of the prisoners were fair and that the judges involved should be rewarded for eliminating the armed opposition in the early years of the revolution. Raisi himself has never publicly addressed the allegations regarding his role.

In 2020, UN human rights experts called for accountability for the 1988 deaths, warning that “the situation could constitute crimes against humanity” if the Iranian government continues to refuse to hold accountable the people involved.

In 2019, the United States sanctioned Raisi for human rights violations, including executions in the 1980s and his role in suppressing unrest in 2009.

Raisi, who lost to pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani in 2017, offered no detailed political or economic programs during his election campaign, while wooing low-income Iranians by promising to reduce unemployment.

However, by promising not to “waste a single moment” in lifting US sanctions, Raisi signaled his support for talks with world powers aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear deal.

A Raisi presidency would strengthen Khamenei’s hand in his country, and human rights activists fear this could lead to more repression.

“He would not have registered as a candidate if his chances were certain, and Raisi’s decision to register would almost certainly have been guided by Khamenei himself,” said Kasra Aarabi, senior analyst on the ‘Iran and Shia Islamist Extremism at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.


With the rejection of prominent moderate and conservative candidates by an outright control body, voters will only have a choice between hard-line supporters and quiet moderates in elections.

Turnout is expected to be at an all time high amid growing anger over economic hardship and restrictions on personal freedoms.

“In taking its exclusionary strategies to a new height, the Guardian Council left no room for surprise,” said Ali Vaez, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group.

An electoral victory could increase Raisi’s chances of succeeding Khamenei, who himself served two terms as president before becoming supreme leader upon the death of the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989, according to analysts.

“Raisi is someone Khamenei trusts (…) Raisi can protect the legacy of the Supreme Leader,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

Born in 1960 to a religious family in the Shia Muslim holy city of Mashhad in Iran, Raisi was active in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah and continues to proclaim his loyalty to the “core values” of Khamenei.

“The Deep State is prepared to go so far as to undermine one of its pillars of legitimacy to ensure that Ayatollah Khamenei’s vision for the future of the revolution survives it when Raisi takes over from the Supreme Leader “said Vaez.

Vaez was referring to the Republican pillar of Iran’s dual system of clerical and republican government. Critics say the rejection by a hardline electoral body of leading moderate and conservative candidates to participate in the electoral race paved the way for tyranny, a charge denied by Iranian authorities.

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