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Who is Ebrahim Raisi? The hardline Iranian president with a vice-like grip on power

In World
May 20, 2024

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s hardline president, has quickly ascended the ranks of the Islamic Republic, ultimately positioning himself as a potential successor to Ali Khamenei, supreme leader.

Mr Raisi, whose fate remains uncertain after a helicopter crash on Sunday, failed to win the 2017 presidential election as the main ultra-conservative candidate, instead being handed a post as head of the judicial branch of the Islamic Republic.

But when he ran for president again in 2021, he easily won – partly due to the disqualification of many viable opponents and moderate candidates.

Mr Raisi, 63, lacked political experience. But his role as a member of the three-member “death committee” that decided the fates of political prisoners in 1988 had helped propel him up the ranks, winning him the support of powerful figures among Iran’s theocratic rulers.

Thousands of political prisoners were executed that summer, as Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq came to an end.

In 2019, the US sanctioned Mr Raisi, in part for this, as well as for his “administrative oversight” of executions of juvenile offenders and torture – “including amputations” – inflicted on prisoners in Iran.

Ebrahim Raisi and Vladimir Putin

Under Mr Raisi, Iran has become closer to Russia – Reuters

After the bloody summer of 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini assigned Mr Raisi to resolve several critical judicial cases. He was instructed to carry out “God’s decree” on cases that had stalled in the Supreme Judicial Council. Most of them ended up at the gallows.

A series of promotions after that saw him become the first deputy head of the judiciary in 2003 – effectively becoming the second most powerful figure in Iran’s judicial system – a position he held for a decade.

It was in this role that he was tasked with investigating allegations of the rape of prisoners following the contested 2009 presidential election. His panel of investigators declared the claims false and baseless.

Mr Raisi won Iran’s closely stage-managed 2021 presidential election, a vote marked by the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

Tightened enforcement

His victory brought all branches of power under the control of hardliners, after eight years in which the presidency had been held by Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who entered into a nuclear deal with Washington.

He has continued his hardline stance as president. A year after his election, he ordered authorities to tighten enforcement of Iran’s “hijab and chastity law” restricting women’s dress and behaviour.

Within weeks, a young Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody after being arrested by morality police for allegedly violating that law. The resulting months of nationwide protests presented one of the gravest challenges to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

More than 500 people were killed and upwards of 22,000 were detained in the months-long crackdown by the morality police and security services that followed.

The protests, alongside a failure to turn around Iran’s struggling economy – hamstrung by Western sanctions and mismanagement – may have diminished Mr Raisi’s popularity at home. But he has retained the support of his mentor, the Supreme Leader, Iran’s most powerful man.

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