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Ebrahim Raisi: The new Iranian president who always follows orders

Head of judiciary has occasionally been critical of establishment but has ultimately bowed to their dictates
Raisi, left, has sought to portray himself as a true supporter and follower of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right (AFP)

Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and head of the judiciary, has won Iran’s presidential poll in an election that saw the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic republic. 

In order to find out who Raisi is, and how he rose to power, we should take a look at his past.

Four years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the 15-year-old Raisi left his town in Mashhad for the holy city of Qom, the site of the country's most important seminaries. 

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In 1981, Raisi abandoned his studies to become the top judiciary official of Karaj, a city close to the capital Tehran. 

In less than ten years, he was promoted to several high-ranking positions within the judiciary, becoming the youngest member of what the opposition dubbed the "death committee".

In 1988, the committee ordered the execution of between 2,000 and 4,000 Iranian political prisoners, including the members of the People's Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK), a group labelled as terrorists by Iran and Iraq, as well as by some members of Marxist and leftist groups. 

The scale, swiftness and lack of process over the executions caused even the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the then-appointed successor of Islamic Republic leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to raise objections. 

Montazeri's criticism of the executions, among other issues, led to his removal from his position in 1989.

In the same year, Raisi was appointed as Tehran’s prosecutor where he was described by the late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as a “moderate” person. 

Raisi then rose to become the head of the General Inspection Office, under the supervision of the judiciary, in 1994.

'Unforgivable sin'

While Raisi has sought to portray himself as a true supporter and follower of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he has on occasion been critical of some of his remarks and behaviour.

In 1996, Raisi paid a visit to Rafsanjani, during which he criticised remarks made by Khamenei alluding to corruption having taken place in the country during Rafsanjani's presidency.

Raisi described Khamenei's comments as "harmful," pointing out that no cases or documents relating to the matter had been noted by his office. 

However, a source, who wished to remain anonymous, told MEE: “Raisi has been a moderate figure personally, but while he may have been critical of the establishment’s policies, he has never changed his direction and always implemented orders accurately.” 

It should be noted that the establishment includes Khamenei, and the security apparatus controlled by him.

In 2009, Raisi, as the first deputy of the judiciary chief, criticised the two reformist presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who believed ballots had been rigged in favour of the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatening to put them on trial for their “unforgivable sin”.

After serving as the first deputy of the judiciary chief for ten years, Raisi was demoted to the position of the country’s prosecutor general by the-then judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani. 

According to a source, this demotion seemingly occurred as Raisi held grudges against Larijani, who was among the candidates to replace Khamenei.

Reversal of fortune

However, a seeming miracle revived Raisi's fortunes, as it was decided he would be groomed for the presidency and to lead the country. 

Offering his analysis, and speaking on condition of anonymity, a former hardline official told MEE: “The leader has always sought to have the presidents under his control. 

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"That’s why he has always been against a reformist taking over the office.

“Khamenei and the establishment helped Ahmadinejad to win the presidential elections as they were sure he would be [their] pawn. 

"However, Ahmadinejad began showing his disobedience in the second period of his presidential term in 2009, turning into a bitter memory and lesson for the leader.

“Since the establishment was frustrated with the reformist-basked [President] Hassan Rouhani, and his taboo-breaking policies and actions, Khamenei’s team sought to find a new face with zero percent chance of attempting to bypass Khamenei and showing disobedience.

"A person who is not known by most of the people and has a kind face: Raisi.”

Plum role

As a result, Raisi, despite being isolated already by Larijani, was suddenly appointed by Khamenei in 2015 to head the Astan Quds Razavi, an organisation that manages the holy shrine of the eighth Imam of Shias. 

Astan Quds Razavi is among the most wealthy and influential organisations in Iran, placing its chairman among the top five most important officials in the Islamic Republic. 

At the same time, rumours started circulating about Raisi being considered by Khamenei as a serious contender to replace him as Supreme Leader after his death.

In this vein, some hardline outlets began referring to Raisi as an ayatollah, in order to raise his position among the elites, while at the same time signalling that he had a full knowledge of Islamic studies.  

It should be noted that the man who occupies the supreme leader’s position must have an "Ijtihad" ability approval (the ability to deduce the rules of sharia from the sources of jurisprudence) from a few grand ayatollahs.

Rapper gaffe

Raisi's new position, the ayatollah references and the Khamenei rumours gradually lifted his status among ordinary people and in the political scene. 

After a year heading Astan Quds Razavi, Raisi entered the 2016 presidential race with the whole of the Islamic Republic's establishment behind him as it bid to topple Rouhani.

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Despite this, Raisi was not adept enough to overcome the eloquent Rouhani, who mopped the floor with him in the presidential debates, with Raisi unable to counter the president’s powerful attacks.

However, what discredited Raisi more was his arrangement of a meeting with the rap singer Tataloo, who is highly popular among Iran's Generation Z. 

With his body fully covered with tattoos, Tataloo's often vulgar songs are considered immoral in the eyes of religious and average Iranians. 

While Raisi’s campaign had sought to gain the votes of younger people, its initiative spectacularly backfired and cost them the support of the religious class and elites.

Intentions thwarted

Despite his failure in the election, Raisi was named by Khamenei in 2019 as the head of the country's judiciary.

The move aroused the anger of Rouhani’s supporters and reformist base, who considered the appointment as retaliation for the loss of Khamenei’s favoured candidate in the presidential race.

According to a source, despite Raisi’s serious intentions to replace Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, his judiciary deputy, and General Prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Khamenei wanted them to remain in place and Raisi decided not to disobey the order.

At the judiciary, Raisi had planned to portray himself as someone against the blocking of social networks and in favour of press freedom. 

However, both Signal and Clubhouse were banned by the judiciary and a reformist weekly named Voice was ordered closed.

Change in foreign policy

Ahead of the 2021 presidential elections, the establishment appeared fearful of another poor performance by Raisi in the debates and a possible victory for his opponents.

As a result, several popular reformists and moderates were barred from running for the office by the Guardian Council which supervises elections.

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Even the moderate Ali Larijani, an adviser to Khamenei, who was described by the late popular Quds commander Qassem Soleimani as the figure most fit to be president, was not allowed to stand. 

Hence, the path was paved for Raisi to be the next president of Iran.

While on the surface Raisi's character seems to be that of a moderate person with a soft approach, he appears to be managed by behind-the-curtain, high-ranking establishment figures who he repeatedly obeys.

Certainly with regard to foreign policy, he is likely to move away from Rouhani’s pro-West engagement, making the possibility of a de-escalation in tensions between Tehran and the West more difficult.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.