By Track Persia
June 22, 2021
The Iranian hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi has won a landslide victory defeating Iran’s outgoing president Hassan Rouhani. Known by his critics as the Butcher, Raisi won about 62 percent of the 29milion votes in the Friday general elections.
Raisi’s victory comes after an attempted boycott of the election following the Iranian regime disqualified candidates who pushed for regime reforms. Almost 600 hopefuls, including 40 women, registered to be candidates in the election. However, in the end, only seven men were approved last month by the 12 jurists and theologians on the Guardian Council, an unelected body that has the ultimate decision concerning candidates’ qualifications. Three of those candidates subsequently pulled out before polling day.
Iran is run according to conservative Shia Islamic values, and there have been curbs on political freedoms since its Islamic Revolution in 1979. Many Iranians saw this latest election as having been engineered for Raisi to win and shunned the poll. Official figures showed voter turnout was the lowest ever for a presidential election, at 48.8%, compared to more than 70% for the previous vote in 2017.
During the election campaign, the 60-year-old Raisi presented himself as the best person to combat corruption and solve the economic problems Iran has experienced under the outgoing President Hassan Rouhani. As head of Iran’s judiciary, the traditionalist cleric who has ultra-conservative political views, is a close ally of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose confidence he has gained after holding key positions of power over four decades.
Raisi will be inaugurated in early August and will have significant influence over domestic policy and foreign affairs. But in Iran’s political system it is the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top religious cleric, who has the final say on all state matters.
However, Raisi is accused of having a long history of involvement in the murder and executions of thousands of Iranian activists in the 1980s.
Crimes against humanity
Ebrahim Raisi was born in 1960 in Mashhad, Iran’s second biggest city and home to the country’s holiest Shia shrine. His father, who was a cleric, died when he was five years old. Mr Raisi followed his father’s footsteps and started attending a Shia seminary in the Iranian holy city of Qom at the age of 15. While a student, he took part in protests against the Western-backed Shah, who was eventually toppled in 1979 in an Islamic Revolution led by the founder of the Islamic Revolution and the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Raisi became the deputy prosecutor in Tehran when he was only 25. While in that position he served as one of four judges who sat on secret tribunals set up in 1988 that came to be known as the “Death Committee”. He was also elected as deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the 88-member clerical body responsible for electing the next Supreme Leader.
Raisi earned his “Butcher” nickname for the involvement in these mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. He has allegedly ordered the torture of pregnant women, had prisoners thrown off cliffs, had people flogged with electric cords, and has overseen countless other brutal acts of violence.
According to human rights groups, most of those who were executed were members of the leftist opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), also known as the People’s Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI). Some 30,000 men, women and children held in prisons all over Iran were lined up against the wall and shot within just a few months, say Iranian oppositions in exiles.
The Iranian regime is also accused of using brutal torture techniques in its prisons including electric shocks, floggings, waterboarding and sexual violence used on prisoners. Stoning to death for adultery remains on the statute books. Meanwhile, electric shocks in prisons see victims strapped into a chair and forced to confess to crimes with the power being turned up if they do not.
Under the Iranian regime’s Islamic Penal Code, a death sentence can be handed down for crimes such as kidnapping, adultery, drinking alcohol and political crimes as well as murder. Victims can also have their fingers amputated for counts of petty theft – leaving just the thumb and palm – using a guillotine-like tool. Children as young as 12 can also be sentenced to death, which is against international law.
It is worth mentioning that the Iranian theocracy carries out around 250 executions a year – the most in the world aside from China. Amnesty International has said that Raisi should face investigation for “crimes against humanity” and torture – including allegations he saw protesters brutalised during unrest in 2019. While Raisi has repeatedly denied his role in the death sentences, he has also said they were justified because of a fatwa, or religious ruling, by former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
Five years ago an audiotape of a 1988 meeting between Mr Raisi, several other members of the judiciary and then Deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was leaked. In it, Montazeri is heard describing the executions as “the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic”. A year later Montazeri lost his position as Khomeini’s designated successor and Ayatollah Khamenei became the Supreme Leader upon Khomeini’s death.
What Raisi’s victory means for the Iranian nation, the Middle East and the world
Raisi stood on a counter-corruption platform amid ongoing economic hardship in Iran. During his election campaign, Raisi promised to ease unemployment and work to remove US sanctions that have contributed to economic hardship for ordinary Iranians and caused widespread discontent. Protesters demanded the resignation of members of Iran’s ruling elite and the government. The impact of sanctions, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has caused one of the worst economic crises in the country’s history, with the inflation rate reaching 50%.
The election was engineered to pave the way for Mr Raisi to win. This has alienated a good number of Iranians already deeply discontented with their living conditions in an economy that is crippled by US sanctions but also mismanagement. The result of the election will not help with their concerns and may even lead to more instability at home. In the past few years, Iran has witnessed at least two rounds of serious nationwide protests – with hundreds, some say thousands, killed.
With Mr Raisi taking the presidency, the hardliners will have taken all the centres of power: the executive branch as well as the legislative and the judiciary. This means that Iran’s hardliners will seek to reinforce a puritanical system of Islamic government, possibly meaning more controls on social activities, fewer freedoms and jobs for women, and tighter control of social media and the press. This will lead Iran to be a more closed society. Freedoms will likely be curtailed even more than before.
In terms of Iran’s regional policy, a more radical clerical Iranian foreign policy under Raisi would mean that Iran will pursue strengthening its relationship with proxies paramilitary networks in the region to gain more importance and greater leverage vis-à-vis its proxy paramilitary networks.. Enjoying a warm relationship with the Supreme Leader Office (SLO) and the IRGC, Raisi’s consolidation of Iranian institutions by a team of loyal hardliners is something he will seek if he were to have effective instruments to re-project hard power in the neighbourhood.
The hardliners are also suspicious of the West, nonetheless, both Mr Raisi and Supreme Leader Khamenei favour a return to an international deal on Iran’s nuclear activity. The finalization of a nuclear deal with the US will lead to a recovering Iranian economy and this will enable Tehran to inject funds to its key proxy radical sectarian Shiite paramilitary groups and sponsoring new ones.
Regarding the Iranian regime’s policy towards the West, the tension with the West is expected to intensify. Indirect talks between Iran and the US in Vienna over reviving the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015, may face more uncertainty. The nuclear deal gave Iran relief from Western sanctions in return for limiting its nuclear activities. The US pulled out of the deal in 2018, and President Trump’s administration re-imposed crippling limits on Iran’s ability to trade. Mr Raisi was among the officials put under sanctions.
Iran has re-started nuclear operations that were banned under the deal. With President Joe Biden also keen to revive the talks with Iran, the ongoing talks in Vienna is aimed at resurrecting the deal. Nonetheless, there are already reports that the talks will now break up for a few weeks, allowing all sides to take stock of the new reality in Iran.