Fall Of Shah, Rise Of Raisi: How Ebrahim Raisi Consolidated Power In Iran

When Ebrahim Raisi assumed the presidency in August 2021, many feared an escalation in Iran's repressive policies.

Fall Of Shah, Rise Of Raisi: How Ebrahim Raisi Consolidated Power In Iran

Ebrahim Raisi's judicial career is marked by his ruthless enforcement of Iran's draconian laws.

New Delhi:

In Iran, President Ebrahim Raisi is a name that evokes both reverence and revulsion. Revered by the hardline factions within Iran's theocratic regime and reviled by human rights organisations, Raisi's journey from a low-ranking cleric's son to the zenith of Iranian power to an abrupt death in an air crash is steeped in controversy.

When Raisi assumed the presidency in August 2021, many feared an escalation in Iran's repressive policies. These fears were soon realised. His administration presided over an alarming increase in executions and continued crackdowns on political dissent. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), emboldened by Raisi's hardline stance, had always been intense in suppressing any form of opposition.

Born on December 14, 1960, in Mashhad in northeast Iran, Raisi grew up in the Islamic clerical tradition. His father, a mid-ranking cleric, ensured that young Raisi was immersed in religious education early on. After he completed only six years of primary school, Raisi was sent to a traditional Islamic seminary, where he would begin his lifelong association with Iran's clerical establishment.

The seismic shift of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, was a key moment for Raisi. At just 18, he joined the revolutionary forces, aligning himself with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fundamentalists who would soon dominate Iran's political and judicial systems. His early zeal and allegiance to the revolutionary cause did not go unnoticed. By 1981, at the age of 21, Raisi had begun his judicial career as the prosecutor of Iran's Karaj and Hamadan provinces.

The 'Death Panels'

Raisi's most notorious chapter began in the late 1980s. In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for the execution of political prisoners affiliated with the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK). In what came to be known as the 1988 Massacre, death commissions were established across Iran to carry out these executions swiftly.

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Raisi was appointed to one such commission in Tehran. The death panels, as they were ominously dubbed, consisted of a few individuals who determined the fate of prisoners through brief interrogations. The questions posed often revolved around the prisoner's political and religious beliefs, and the answers dictated whether they lived or died. Estimates suggest that around 5,000 prisoners were executed during this period, though some sources put the number as high as 30,000.

Raisi's role in these executions earned him the moniker "The Butcher of Tehran."

Eyewitnesses and survivors recount harrowing tales of Raisi supervising torture sessions and personally attending executions. Some reports describe the 1988 Massacre as "the second-worst violation of prisoners' rights since the end of World War II," surpassed only by 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sanctions and Condemnations

Raisi's involvement in the 1988 Massacre and his continued role in Iran's oppressive judicial system did not go unnoticed internationally. The United States sanctioned him in November 2019, citing his direct involvement in human rights abuses. These sanctions were part of a broader strategy to isolate and punish key figures within Iran's regime.

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Human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have long called for Raisi to be investigated for crimes against humanity. His presidency, which began in August 2021, only intensified these calls.

On his watch, the number of executions in Iran skyrocketed. Reports indicate that 582 people were executed in 2022 alone, including 22 women and eight juveniles. This marked a significant increase from the previous year, with executions often carried out for political dissent and other charges deemed subversive by the regime.

Consolidation of Power

Raisi's ascent to the presidency was seen as a consolidation of hardline control within Iran. By August 2021, the country's hardline faction controlled all the levers of power from the Supreme Leader to the Parliament to the IRGC. This consolidation signalled a grim future for reformists and moderates within Iran.

The regime's reliance on brute force to maintain control became increasingly apparent, as evidenced by the brutal crackdown on protests in 2017, 2019, and beyond. The regime, under Raisi's influence, seemed to operate under the belief that the only way to quell dissent was through sheer brutality.

A Career of Repression

Raisi's judicial career is marked by his ruthless enforcement of Iran's draconian laws. After serving as a prosecutor in various provinces, he moved to Tehran, where he became the deputy prosecutor. It was during this time that he became involved with the Death Committees and later, the Islamic Revolutionary Courts (IRC), which were established to address a wide range of offences from drug trafficking to blasphemy.

Raisi's close relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his son, Mojtaba, who allegedly runs Iran's security apparatus unofficially, facilitated his rise within the judicial ranks. He allegedly sanctioned forced confessions obtained under torture and was known for his harsh stance against women who defied Iran's strict modesty laws.

This was evident after the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who protested against Iran's draconian Hijab laws, in police custody. Thousands of people hit the streets to protest Amini's death and Raisi responded with force, suppressing all unrest.

The international community's response to Raisi's presidency was mixed. While some nations continued to engage with Iran diplomatically, others, particularly the United States and its allies, remained staunchly opposed. The Biden administration, which had initially sought to re-engage with Iran on the nuclear deal, found itself at an impasse due to Raisi's hardline policies.