At a rally for commanders of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2019, Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s then Conservative head of justice, vowed to dismember corrupt Iranians and praised the Guard for shooting down an American drone.
“We will not only cut off the fingers of the corrupt, but also chop off the arms,” ââsaid Raisi at the time, according to videos in Iranian media, adding that the downing of the drone had helped to turn the country’s mood “into defiance” Negotiations.”
Now Raisi, a 60-year-old hardliner and close ally of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been elected president after a campaign widely believed to be planned to ensure his victory.
For the past 18 months, the president-elect has been the head of the Iranian judiciary, although human rights groups say he has been in the helm of the judiciary for the past three decades before and during his tenure. He is accused of sending thousands of political prisoners to their deaths in the 1980s and of having played a role in the deadly crackdown on anti-government protests in 2009 and 2019.
The United States has imposed sanctions on Mr Raisi for his human rights record, a situation that would make him the first Iranian President to take the world stage in places like the United Nations Annual General Assembly under the cloud of such a designation.
“He has been issuing execution warrants and prison terms since he was 20,” said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent organization based in New York. “During his tenure as head of justice, he waged an extensive campaign of repression,” added Mr Ghaemi. “He has no government experience, but very deep connections to the security and intelligence apparatus.”
Raisi is considered to be the most likely successor to the all-powerful 82-year-old leader, who has the last word in all important state affairs. And his election as president could be an important step on the way to a top job.
But Mr Raisi’s victory is starred in the eyes of many Iranians who boycotted the elections in protest. A conservative clergy council, close to the top leader and responsible for screening presidential candidates, eliminated any other rivals that could have been a serious challenge ahead of Friday’s vote.
His victory could also pose an uncomfortable situation for the Biden administration as he was blacklisted under American sanctions that would generally prohibit any dealings with him. These sanctions were imposed by President Donald J. Trump in a 2019 executive order that Mr Biden did not repeal.
Although the United States has no formal ties with Iran and would not meet directly with Raisi as president, the two countries are negotiating through mediators in Vienna on the revival of the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 with the world powers.
Mr. Raisi has deep ties to the spiritual hierarchy of Iran and has strong support from the security apparatus, including the elite forces of the Revolutionary Guard. He is expected to stand by the stubborn conservative policies of the Supreme Leader.
He said his priorities will be fighting corruption, improving people’s livelihoods and delivering mass Covid-19 vaccination. He has also signaled his willingness to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which could lead to the lifting of the economic sanctions that have weighed on the Iranian economy.
“We will put national interests first,” said Raisi in an interview with Iranian state television. “We believe that the repressive sanctions must be lifted and that no effort should be spared.”
He thanked voters in a statement on Saturday and also pledged to form a government that “will move towards social justice as a pillar of the Islamic revolution”.
Mr Raisi’s opponents fear that he will gradually increase social oppression and further restrict access to the Internet and popular apps such as Instagram and Clubhouse. Prominent journalists and activists fear widespread arrests after he took office.
However, some of his critics are more optimistic, speculating that he might hold back with restrictions so as not to provoke riots.
Mr. Raisi, who will take office in August, began his political career as an ideological prosecutor and judge and then rose to the highest judicial office in the country.
He was born the son of a clergyman in the religious city of Mashhad in eastern Iran. At the age of 15 he attended a Shiite theological seminary in the city of Qom, and opponents criticize him for not having had any formal non-religious education beyond the sixth grade. His black turban symbolizes that he is considered a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
He rode the skirts of the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy in 1979 by showing ideological loyalty and a willingness to go to great lengths to ensure the survival of the Islamic theocracy. He served as a prosecutor in several cities, became deputy prosecutor of Tehran in 1985 and eventually rose to the highest ranks in the judiciary.
During Raisi’s rise to power, Iranian and international human rights groups have accused him of serious violations – several of them are quoted in the 2019 U.S. sanctions order.
In 1988, while he was deputy attorney general of Tehran, Raisi was embroiled in one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the Islamic Republic. According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations, he was on a four-member committee that killed around 5,000 detained government opponents. Many of them were executed in prison despite not having been sentenced to death, according to human rights organizations and relatives of the dead.
Raisi addressed these allegations in 2018, saying the death sentences were passed by a judge and upheld by the Supreme Court, according to Iranian news reports. He said the allegations of violations of law amounted to a “point settlement” against him and then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
“I am proud to have fought the wave of opposition, financial corruption and theft,” Raisi said, according to reports.
The American sanctions order states that Raisi was also involved in the brutal crackdown on the Iranian protests against the regime’s Green Movement that followed the chaotic 2009 presidential election in Iran.
A decade later, he was accused of failing to investigate the deadly shootings of hundreds of peaceful unarmed protesters during nationwide protests in 2019 against a rise in gas prices. At least 7,000 demonstrators were arrested, tortured and sentenced to harsh prison terms by the judiciary led by Mr Raisi.
The American decision to impose sanctions accused Raisi of “administrative oversight of the executions of persons who were minors at the time of their crime, and the torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations”.
Despite the weighty allegations against him, Mr. Raisi has many supporters who praise his tough crackdown on corruption as the head of justice, including the indictment of a prominent judge who was deputy attorney general. He has portrayed himself as a sort of Robin Hood willing to hunt down powerful political figures for financial misconduct in order to help the oppressed and give hope to society.
During an unsuccessful presidential candidacy against Hassan Rouhani in 2017, Raisi presented himself as an anti-corruption hero and garnered support from the poor and pious by lifting the issue of inequality.
From 2016 to 2017, he ran Astan Quds Razavi, overseeing a huge, wealthy religious foundation that includes a sacred shrine, charity wing, and holding company with dozens of lucrative businesses. Astan is directly under Mr. Khamenei’s control and is considered to be one of his main sources of wealth.
Mr. Raisi is married to Jamileh Alamolhoda, the daughter of the religious hardliner Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda. Her father, who leads Friday prayer in Mashhad, was appointed by Mr. Khamenei and has enforced ultra-conservative regulations in eastern Khorasan Province, including a ban on live music performances and cycling for women.
Raisi’s wife is an associate professor of education at a prestigious university and they have two grown daughters – one sociologist, the other a physicist – and two grandchildren.
Ali Vaez, the Iranian director of the International Crisis Group, called Raisi a “tried and loyal apparatchik” to Mr. Khamenei who would not question the Supreme Leader’s policies or interfere with his legacy.
“Raisi owes his entire political career to Khamenei,” said Mr. Vaez.