Ebrahim Raisi was relatively unknown until 2017, when he ran as the main opponent to Hassan Rohani in the presidential election. He lost but was consequently appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to head the judiciary. Many understood that decision as a sign that the Supreme Leader had bigger plans for Raisi.
Important aspects of Raisi’s life and views will influence his conduct in the medium to long term. His campaign messages and statements at a post-election press conference on 21 June are revealing in this regard.
Born in 1960, Raisi was a young cleric at the time of the 1979 Revolution and a student of the powerful Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who became the first post-revolutionary head of the judiciary. Beheshti was respected as one of the architects of the Constitution. He was killed in a terrorist attack in 1980.
Raisi’s close affiliation with Beheshti propelled him into the judiciary, and by mid-1980s he was a revolutionary judge. Raisi has stated that Beheshti’s approach to governance and institution building inspired him.
In 1988, Raisi was a member of a judicial committee that prosecuted political prisoners. The committee issued death sentences for thousands of political dissidents, most of them members of the outlawed Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO). That controversial decision was concurrent with the ending of the Iran–Iraq war. Many argue that Raisi proved his revolutionary credentials by signing the death sentences of so many prisoners, including women and children.
A leaked audiotape from 1988 underlines Raisi’s responsibility. In it, the then supreme leader, Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri, addresses Raisi and three other committee members, saying, ‘The biggest crime that has occurred under the Islamic Republic, and that history will condemn us for, was committed by your hands. In the future, you’ll be remembered as the criminals of history.’
In his press conference on 21 June, Raisi justified those actions as an attempt to provide security for the Iranian people, indicating that he would not apologise for his record on human rights: ‘All that I have done through my years of service has always been towards defending human rights.’
Numerous human rights abuses were committed during his short tenure as head of the judiciary, including the oppression of protestors in November 2019 and several executions.
Raisi is subject to US sanctions because of the executions – a fact that will make it difficult for him to travel to Western capitals.
Raisi is among the Iranian clerics who subscribe to the revolutionary attributes of the Islamic Republic and are very distrustful of the West in general and the United States in particular.
He believes that Western governments have an agenda to influence domestic, especially cultural, developments in Iran. When asked during the press conference whether he would meet with President Joe Biden, his answer was a clear and categorical ‘no.’
Looking beyond his revolutionary attitudes and anti-Americanism, one key characteristic of his world view is a belief in the Islamic Umma, which translates into a desire to consolidate relations with key Islamic countries. This is why he used the occasion of the conference to state that there were no obstacles to improving Iran–Saudi relations.
Better relations with Russia and China do not feature in Raisi’s world view but will be imposed by economic necessity. Deep distrust of the West, as well as the fact that Islamic countries alone cannot provide Iran with the level of investment and technology it needs, will mean greater economic ties with Eastern powers.
The Mashhad Ring
Raisi is a key member of what is referred to in Iranian politics as the Mashhad Ring. He is the son-in law of the powerful Ayatollah Sayyid Ahmad Alamolhoda, Friday prayer leader of Mashhad. Raisi also managed the largest religious foundation in the country, Astan Qods Razavi (AQR), the entity that manages the wealth of the mausoleum of Imam Reza, the 8th Shi’a Imam.
Other prominent members of the Mashhad Ring are current Majles speaker Mohammad Baquer Qalibaf and the current head of AQR, Ayatollah Ahmad Marvi.
Similar to other networks that have been shaped by regional loyalties, this group will shift some infrastructure investments towards the three Kharassan provinces, especially Mashhad, which is already an important hub for trade with Central Asia and for religious tourism.
Within the domestic power structure, Raisi represents the ultra-conservative view. His affiliation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and hardliners can be understood as a marriage of convenience to outmanoeuvre three other groups: reformists, moderates, and mainstream conservatives.
In fact, over the past two years, ultra-conservatives and hardliners managed to undermine the popularity of the Rohani government and marginalise the Larijani family. It should be noted that the 2018 popular uprising against the government’s economic policies started in Mashhad and was most probably organised by circles affiliated with Raisi, who was head of the AQR.
Some analysts argue that Raisi and the Mashhad Ring have used their religious regional links to consolidate ties with Shi’a militias in Iraq and Afghan Fatemiyoun fighters from Syria, up to the point of settling some of the Afghan fighters in Mashhad. These connections will consolidate the power of the Mashhad Ring.
This article continues — with Domestic positioning; Battlefield versus diplomacy; Raisi and the economy; and Conclusions — in the June 2021 issue of Iran Strategic Focus.