A Roadblock for Iran’s President-Elect: He’s on the U.S. Sanctions List

A Roadblock for Iran’s President-Elect: He’s on the U.S. Sanctions List


At a 2019 rally for commanders of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative head of the country’s judicial system at the time, vowed to dismember corrupt Iranians and praised the Guards for shooting down an American drone.

“We will not only cut off the fingers but chop off the arms of the corrupt,” Mr. Raisi said at the time, according to videos on Iranian media, adding that the downing of the drone had helped shift the country’s mood “to defiance instead of negotiations.”

Now Mr. Raisi, a 60-year-old hard-line cleric and close ally of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been elected president after a campaign widely viewed as engineered to ensure his victory.

For the past 18 months, the president-elect has served as the head of Iran’s judiciary, even though rights groups say he has a well-documented record of grave human rights violations over the past three decades, both before and during his time at the helm of the judiciary. He has been accused of playing a role in sending thousands of political prisoners to their deaths in the 1980s, and in lethal crackdowns on antigovernment protests in 2009 and 2019.

The United States and the European Union have both imposed sanctions on Mr. Raisi over his human rights record, a situation that would make him the first Iranian president to take the world stage at venues like the annual United Nations General Assembly under the cloud of such a designation.

“Since the age of 20, he has been issuing execution orders and prison sentences,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent New York-based organization. “In his tenure as judiciary chief, he has led an extensive repression campaign,” Mr. Ghaemi added. “He has no governing experience, but very deep ties to the security and intelligence apparatus.”

Mr. Raisi is viewed as the most likely successor to the all-powerful, 82-year-old supreme leader — who has the final word on all important matters of state. And his election as president could be a major step in his ascent to the top job.

But Mr. Raisi’s victory will come with an asterisk in the eyes of many Iranians who boycotted the election as a protest. A conservative council of clerics close to the supreme leader, responsible for vetting presidential candidates, eliminated all other rivals who could have posed a serious challenge ahead of Friday’s voting.

His victory could also pose an awkward predicament for the Biden administration, because he has been blacklisted under American sanctions, which generally would prohibit any dealings with him. Those sanctions were imposed by President Donald J. Trump in a 2019 executive order, which Mr. Biden has not repealed.

Although the United States has no formal ties with Iran and would not engage directly with Mr. Raisi as president, the two countries are holding talks through intermediaries in Vienna about reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Mr. Raisi has deep ties to Iran’s clerical hierarchy and enjoys strong support from the security apparatus, including the elite Revolutionary Guards force. He is expected to stand by the supreme leader’s hard-line conservative policies.

He has said that his priorities will be fighting corruption, improving people’s livelihoods and providing mass Covid-19 vaccinations. He has also indicated a willingness to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, something that could lead to the removal of economic sanctions that have weighed down Iran’s economy.

“We will put national interests first,” Mr. Raisi said in an interview with Iran’s state television. “We believe that the oppressive sanctions must be lifted and no effort should be spared.”

Mr. Raisi’s opponents worry that he will gradually increase social oppression and further limit access to the internet and popular apps like Instagram and Clubhouse. Prominent journalists and activists have said they fear widespread arrests once he takes office.

Some of his critics, however, are more optimistic, speculating that he might hold back on imposing restrictions to avoid provoking unrest.

Mr. Raisi, who will take office in August, began his political career as an ideological prosecutor and judge, then climbed the ranks to reach the country’s top judicial office.

He was born the son of a cleric in the religious city of Mashhad in eastern Iran. He attended a Shiite theological seminary in the city of Qom at age 15, and opponents have criticized him for not having a formal nonreligious education beyond sixth grade. His black turban symbolizes that he is considered a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

He rode the coattails of the Islamic Revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1979 by displaying ideological loyalty and a willingness to go to great lengths to ensure the Islamic theocracy’s survival. He served as a prosecutor in several cities, and in 1985 became the deputy prosecutor of Tehran, eventually rising to the judiciary’s top ranks.

Throughout Mr. Raisi’s rise to power, Iranian and international rights groups have accused him of serious violations — several of them cited in the 2019 U.S. sanctions order.

In 1988, when he was Tehran’s deputy prosecutor general, Mr. Raisi was implicated in one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the Islamic Republic. He sat on a four-man committee that sent about 5,000 imprisoned government opponents to their deaths, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations. Many were executed in prison even though they had not been sentenced to death, according to rights groups and relatives of the dead.

Mr. Raisi addressed those accusations in 2018, saying that the death sentences had been issued by a judge and upheld by the Supreme Court, according to Iranian news reports. He said the accusations of rights violations amounted to “score settling” against him and the supreme leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“It is my pride to have fought the wave of opposition, financial corruption and theft,” Mr. Raisi has said, according to the reports.

The American sanctions order said Mr. Raisi was also involved in the regime’s brutal crackdown on Iran’s Green Movement protests that followed Iran’s chaotic 2009 presidential election.

A decade later, he was accused of failing to investigate the fatal shootings of hundreds of peaceful unarmed demonstrators during 2019 nationwide protests over a rise in gas prices. At least 7,000 protesters were arrested, tortured and sentenced to harsh prison terms by the judiciary that Mr. Raisi led, rights groups say.

The American decision to impose sanctions accused Mr. Raisi of “administrative oversight over the executions of individuals who were juveniles 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 accusations against him, Mr. Raisi has many supporters who praise his crackdown on corruption as judiciary chief, including putting on trial a prominent judge who was the deputy minister of justice. He has portrayed himself as a Robin Hood of sorts, willing to hunt down powerful political figures for financial wrongdoing in the interest of helping the oppressed and injecting hope into society.

During an unsuccessful presidential bid against Hassan Rouhani in 2017, Mr. Raisi presented himself as an anticorruption hero and rallied support among the poor and the pious by pounding away at the theme of inequality.

From 2016 to 2017, he ran Astan Quds Razavi, overseeing a vast, wealthy religious foundation that includes a holy shrine, a charity wing and a holding company with dozens of lucrative businesses. Astan is directly under the control of Mr. Khamenei and is believed to be one of his most significant sources of wealth.

Mr. Raisi is married to Jamileh Alamolhoda, the daughter of a religious hard-liner, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda. Her father, who leads Friday prayers in Mashhad, was appointed by Mr. Khamenei and has enforced ultraconservative regulations in the eastern province of Khorasan, including a ban on live musical performances and on women’s riding bicycles.

Mr. Raisi’s wife is an associate professor of education at a prominent university, and they have two adult daughters — one a sociologist, the other a physicist — and two grandchildren.

Ali Vaez, the Iran director for the International Crisis Group, called Mr. Raisi a “tested and loyal apparatchik” to Mr. Khamenei who would not challenge the supreme leader’s policies or interfere with his legacy.

“Raisi owes his entire political career to Khamenei,” Mr. Vaez said.



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