Ebrahim Raisi. (Ali Khamenei, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ebrahim Raisi – a “brutal hangman” with an ultraconservative hardline agenda – was elected president of Iran on Saturday on a low-turnout, reflecting widespread public dissatisfaction with both the rigged poll and the Islamic regime. His victory was welcomed by Russia, the Assad regime and Iranian-sponsored terror groups in the region but provoked dismay in Israel and the west.

What happened

  • Raisi, the head of Iran’s judiciary and a favourite of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won nearly 62 percent of the vote on a 49 percent turnout. He will take office in August.
  • Fellow hardliner Mohsen Rezaei, former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, won 11.8 percent of the vote, with reformist Abdolnasser Hemmati, a former head of the central bank, on 8.4 percent.
  • “Backed by your high vote and exceptional confidence, I will form a hard-working, revolutionary and anti-corruption government,” Raisi said.
  • Raisi is seen as a potential successor to 82-year-old Khamenei. Khamenei, himself a former president, ran in two similarly non-competitive elections in the 1980s before being chosen to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.
  • “Iranians were denied their right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process,” the US State Department said in reaction to the election.
  • Following the announcement of the result, Amnesty International called for Raisi to be investigated for crimes against humanity.

Rigged election

Iran’s outgoing president, the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani, last month described the election as “a corpse”. Rouhani’s predecessor, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for a boycott of the poll. More than 600 candidates had applied to stand in the election to replace Rouhani. But the conservative-dominated Guardian Council, which vets candidates, allowed only seven to go through. Half of the council’s members are appointed by the supreme leader, and the other half by the head of the judiciary. Raisi himself nominated three council members. Five of the ultimately approved candidates were, like Raisi, conservative hardliners. They included Rezaei and former secretary of the National Security Council and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. The remaining two – Hemmati and ex-provincial governor Mohsen Mehralizadeh – were barely known centrist politicians with little popular appeal. Reformist or moderate candidates who might have stood a better chance against Raisi, such as Ali Larijani, a former speaker of the Iranian parliament; Rouhani’s vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri; and Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister who was imprisoned for six years for leading anti-regime protests, were all blocked. The populist Ahmadinejad was also barred from standing. Three of the seven approved candidates – including Jalili and Mehralizadeh – dropped out on the eve of the election.

Mood in Iran

Turnout in presidential elections has ranged between 60 and 80 percent and high levels of voter participation in the albeit highly controlled elections is trumpeted by the regime as a key source of its legitimacy.

  • The 49 percent turnout is the lowest in a presidential election since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
  • It follows the historically low level of turnout in last year’s parliamentary elections when only 42 percent of Iranians – and only 26 percent in Tehran – participated after another campaign in which the Guardian Council wielded its considerable influence to snuff out reformist candidates.
  • While some reformers – such as Mohammad Khatami – endorsed Hemmati and urged Iranians to go to the polls, many other reformists advocated a boycott of elections widely seen as having been fixed at the outset by the country’s hardline religious and security establishment.
  • “It will be a turning point because a majority do not take part in the election and that means a majority do not support the Islamic republic any longer. That is the crucial point of this election,” Sadegh Zibakalam, an outspoken politics professor at Tehran University, suggested ahead of the results being declared.

The next supreme leader?

“At this stage, when the supreme leader is very likely to pass away, Raisi represents a man who the entire security establishment trusts,” suggested Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran. “He has been on the side of the security and intelligence agencies – that use the judiciary for repression – his entire life.”

“The hangman of Tehran”

Raisi, whose black turban symbolises his claim to a lineage stretching back to the Prophet Mohammad, is a highly conservative cleric, who has spent his life in the Islamic Republic’s judiciary and is heavily implicated in some of its worst crimes.

  • Soon after the 1979 revolution, 20-year-old Raisi became prosecutor-general of the city of Karaj, outside of Tehran.
  • As Tehran’s deputy prosecutor in the late 1980s, he was a member of the city’s notorious “death committee”. In 1988, he participated in a series of political trials and mass executions targeting left-wingers, political prisoners and other regime opponents as the Iran-Iraq war drew to an inconclusive close.
  • The numbers of those brutally executed in the Khomeini-ordered purge are estimated to range between 5,000 and 30,000.
  • While attempting to evade responsibility by claiming he wasn’t the head of the court, Raisi admitted in 2018 that he was at a meeting in August 1988 in which, according to an audio released in 2016, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri warned “this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the [1979] revolution and history will condemn us for it…. History will write you down as criminals.”
  • Reacting to Raisi’s election, Amnesty International suggested: “That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”
  • The US has placed Raisi, alongside others, on a sanctions list, citing his role in the mass executions and other alleged human rights abuses.

Grim record

Raisi became Tehran’s prosecutor-general in 1989 and deputy chair of the Judicial Authority in 2004. In 2014, he became Iran’s national prosecutor-general, before becoming head of the judiciary in 2019. As Amnesty argued, since then Raisi has “presided over a spiralling crackdown on human rights” with “hundreds of peaceful dissidents, human rights defenders and members of persecuted minority groups arbitrarily detained”. The human rights group highlighted the fact that the judiciary has subjected “thousands of protesters to mass arrests and at least hundreds to enforced disappearance, and torture and other ill-treatment during and in the aftermath of the nationwide protests of November 2019”. Raisi adopted a similarly harsh attitude during the 2009 “Green Movement” protests, suggesting: “To those who speak of ‘Islamic compassion and forgiveness,’ we respond: we will continue to confront the rioters until the end and we will uproot this sedition.” Despite this grim record, Raisi pledged during the campaign to defend “freedom of expression” and “the fundamental rights of all Iranian citizens”.

Khameni’s favourite…

Raisi was the hand-picked choice of Khameni, whose “severe interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence as the basis for the state and government” he shares. Over the past five years, the supreme leader has repeatedly helped Raisi climb the greasy poll of Iranian politics.

  • In 2016, he was chosen to head the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation – a key political, commercial and religious institution – which runs a major Shiite pilgrimage site, as well as a host of properties, businesses and charities.
  • In 2017, Raisi was allowed to stand in the presidential elections. Although defeated by Rouhani, who was seeking a second term, he won 15.8 million votes in what was seen as a dry-run for this year’s successful campaign.
  • In 2019, Raisi was picked to head the Iranian judiciary; he’s used the post to lead a popular campaign against corruption, while artfully targeting potential political opponents. He pledged to continue his attack on “corruption hotbeds” during the presidential election campaign.
  • Also in 2019, Raisi became vice-president of the Assembly of Experts, the elite body which will choose Khamenei’s successor as supreme leader.

… or a well-picked fall-guy?

As the example of Rouhani proves, Iranian presidents tend to leave office with their popularity shredded. While Raisi is a leading contender to succeed Khamenei, the supreme leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, is also thought to be in the running. Some Iranians wonder, the Economist recently noted, if the effort to shoe-horn Raisi into the presidency is “in fact meant to undermine his chances of getting the top job”.

Israel reacts

Israeli politicians and policymakers denounced Raisi’s election and warned of potential trouble ahead.

  • Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, new prime minister Naftali Bennett said: “Of all the people that Khamenei could have chosen, he chose the hangman of Tehran, the man infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees that executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years.”
  • “A regime of brutal hangmen must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction that will enable it to not kill thousands, but millions,” the prime minister added.
  • Ram Ben-Barak, chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee and member of the centre-left Yesh Atid party, warned: “Raisi’s election as Iran’s next president is conclusive evidence of Khamenei’s decision to radicalise Iran’s conduct on foreign, nuclear and terrorist policies.” Ben-Barak, a former Mossad head, continued: “A big challenge has been placed at the door of the West and Israel.”


Experts on Iran suggest that Raisi’s political statements have mainly echoed those of Khamenei, while his pledges on the campaign trail were similarly unilluminating.

  • Focusing on bread-and-butter issues, Raisi said he would create millions of jobs and tackle inflation, although he gave no indication as to how he would fulfil these plans given the crippling US’ sanctions regime.
  • Policy on foreign policy and security issues – especially highly sensitive topics such as the fate of the nuclear deal – remain dominated by Khamenei’s wishes. Nonetheless Eurasia Group senior analyst Henry Rome suggested that “Raisi’s hardline political and economic beliefs will limit the scope for significant foreign investment if a deal is reached and further isolate Tehran from the west.”
  • In his first press conference after the results were announced, Raisi backed the continuing Vienna talks which are aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Raisi said, however, the Tehran’s “regional activities” – code for its support for a host of terror groups and proxy armies – and ballistic missile programme were non-negotiable.
  • While the International Atomic Energy Agency said it expected any breakthrough on the nuclear deal negotiations would probably not come until the new administration takes office in August, some commentators believe Khamenei may push Rouhani to cut a deal, allowing Raisi to escape blame for any concessions and reap the rewards of sanctions being lifted. “Outgoing Iranian presidents are sometimes asked to be sacrificial lambs rather than lame ducks,” Omer Carmi wrote.

What happens next

Raisi’s chances of becoming supreme leader if Khamenei dies during his term are by no means guaranteed. “Hardliners’ alliances keep shifting. A smooth transition of power requires preparation and reinforcement, but Iran’s politics are too complicated to allow Raisi and his enablers to easily construct a power base according to their blueprint,” wrote Ali Reza Eshraghi in a briefing for the European Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month. The presidential race will do little to boost his popular legitimacy: his victory, with possibly the lowest voter turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history, would be widely viewed as engineered by the Guardian Council.”