Explainer: Who Is Iranian President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi?
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi attends a news conference for the local and international media in Tehran on June 21, 2021. (Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Explainer: Who Is Iranian President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi?

Ebrahim Raisi, who won Iran’s presidential election last month, defeated three other candidates in the first round, attracting a commanding 72% of the vote.

Raisi, who has long held the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had no significant competition within the election, as other possibly threatening candidates were not granted approval by the 12-member Guardian Council, which is required by Iran’s Constitution for a presidential run.

As a result of protests by political activists and some reformists in response to the disqualification of candidates, the electoral turnout was just under 49%, the lowest it has been in post-revolution Iran. Many Iranians boycotted the vote in protest of the lack of serious candidates.

Jason Brodsky, a senior Middle East analyst at the London-based Iran International, told The Media Line that “Iranians know Ebrahim Raisi as an executioner and imprisoner. He is the first chief justice to assume Iran’s presidency, and there is great fear of the continued darkness that lies ahead.”

Raisi ran with very little available public information on his policies. In a press conference after his win, he emphasized his commitment to cracking down on corruption within the judiciary and the wider government, as well as his desire to protect Iranian national interests.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian deputy foreign minister who is close to Raisi and is helping to shape foreign policy, told CNN in an interview days after the election that there will be an “active and dynamic” foreign policy which “will be able to secure Iranian rights on all fronts.”

Iranians know Ebrahim Raisi as an executioner and imprisoner. He is the first chief justice to assume Iran’s presidency, and there is great fear of the continued darkness that lies ahead

In 2019, US President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Raisi, accusing him of overseeing the executions of juvenile offenders and of involvement in the violence that followed the Green Movement, a protest movement that opposed the results of the 2009 presidential election. Trump also pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed sanctions on Iran that led to an economic downturn.

Unsurprisingly, Raisi doesn’t seem to harbor any fondness for the Americans, and when asked by reporters whether he would meet with US President Joe Biden, Raisi simply responded “no.” However, participants in the Vienna talks to revitalize the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers hope to finalize the deal before Raisi takes office. It remains to be seen whether what is agreed on will last under Raisi.

Last Wednesday, Reuters reported citing an unnamed diplomatic source that Iran is not prepared to resume nuclear negotiations until Raisi assumes office next month and puts a new government into place.

Meanwhile, many are hopeful that rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is within sight under the next president, with reports of a possible establishment of embassies in the two countries.

Raisi was born in the holy city of Mashhad in 1960. He trained in a seminary in Qom from the age of 15 and took part in anti-shah protests as a student. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who promoted Western values and was backed by the US, represented a secularization of Iranian society that Raisi, a conservative hard-liner, disliked deeply.

Raisi wears a black turban, which in Shia tradition means he claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad. He became deputy prosecutor in Tehran at age 25 and was one of four judges on a committee that retried prisoners in jail for political crimes. Around 5,000 men and women were sentenced to death by what became known as the “Death Committee” and were buried in unmarked mass graves.

Raisi has justified this as part of a fatwa (religious ruling) by the former supreme leader but has also, on separate occasions, denied accusations of his involvement in the death sentences.

He was a presidential candidate in 2017, but incumbent President Hassan Rouhani won a second term by a 57% majority.

Khamenei named Raisi head of the judiciary in 2019.

Brodsky believes many Iranians see Raisi as a “leading contender” to succeed the 82-year-old Khamenei as supreme leader. The president-elect is “arguably the most qualified official in the Iranian establishment to become the next supreme leader. No one can compete with his claim to have presided over two branches of government – the judiciary and soon the presidency.” However, he will have to contend with his controversial reputation as “executioner and imprisoner.”

One Iranian resident, who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, said Raisi is seen by many as “a murderer” who will “lead the country down a dark path.”

He is the only president-elect of Iran to have had sanctions imposed against him by the US before taking office, and will, according to Brodsky, “face challenges in being accepted on the world stage as a head of government, given his bloodstained record.” Additionally, “there will be more continuity than change during Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency because it is Iran’s supreme leader who is the decision-maker on the files that most concern the international community.”

Candice Jebreel is a student at IDC Herzliya and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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