Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi was a low-profile figure in Iranian politics before he became the frontrunner for the conservative Principlist camp in the presidential election in May 2017. Yet despite not being a household name, he was by no means unimportant. For over three decades, he was an influential and at times feared player in Iran’s judicial system.
His public status changed in March 2016, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, appointed him as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi. In addition to being the wealthiest charity in the Muslim world, Astan Quds Razavi has significant religio-political significance for Iran. It is responsible for managing the holy shrine of the eighth Shiite Imam, Reza, located in the north-eastern city of Mashhad.
Almost as soon as Raisi was appointed to this important role, rumours began circulating about his future in the country’s hierarchy. Many Iran observers suggested that Raisi was being groomed to become the country’s next supreme leader. Constitutionally, the Assembly of Experts is responsible for filling this position. Although there was no hint from the Assembly or the supreme leader himself that Raisi was next in line, he was widely considered a likely successor.
Raisi was born on 14 December 1960 in Mashhad, also the supreme leader’s birthplace. During the revolution (1978-79), Raisi was a seminarian in Qom. Although only 18 at the time, he was one of 70 young clerics chosen to participate in a fast-track course in statecraft and management, in order to fill the power vacuum that followed the overthrow of the shah. One of the clerics who taught the selected clerics was Ali Khamenei. However, Raisi’s early ties with Khamenei was not the only factor behind his rapid rise in the regime.
Raisi’s personal background, including family connections, also helped. He is the son-in-law of Ahmad Alamolhoda, Friday prayer leader in Mashhad and one of the country’s most hard-line figures. Since the early days of post-revolutionary Iran, Alamolhoda has been a close ally of Khamenei. The ties between the two men have been indispensable political assets for Raisi’s position.
Shortly after the revolution, Raisi joined the judicial system and rose quickly through the ranks, despite his young age. He was the prosecutor and deputy prosecutor in the capital Tehran in the 1980s and 1990s. In the summer of 1988, he was one of the four judges behind the mass execution of leftists and dissidents. Thousands of prisoners were brought before the committee of which Raisi was part, and asked whether they renounced their dissent and believed in the Islamic Republic. Some were also asked if they were willing to walk through Iraqi minefields. Those who were not prepared to give up their views were summarily executed and buried in a plot of unmarked land near Tehran. Amnesty International estimates that 4,500 people were executed, although other sources suggest the number is higher.
In August 2016, on the 28th anniversary of the executions, the official website of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri released an audio file from a meeting he held in 1988 with senior judges and judiciary officials involved in the executions, including Raisi. The recording, in which Montazeri can be heard denouncing the killings, reignited calls for an enquiry into the executions and highlighted Raisi’s role in ‘the committee of death’.
Raisi officially entered the presidential race on 6 April 2017, stating that it was his “religious and revolutionary responsibility to run”. He expressed his willingness to consider a “fundamental change in the executive management of the country”. He is neither charismatic nor well-spoken, and in the first televised presidential debate his performance was judged to be weak and monotonous. Despite the fact that he was the main conservative candidate, Raisi was upstaged by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s conservative mayor and a backup Principlist in the race.
The week before the election, Ghalibaf withdrew his candidacy in favour of Raisi. Nonetheless, Raisi, who was believed to be Khamenei’s preferred choice, stood little chance against the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, who was supported by popular reformist figures such as Mohammad Khatami. The moderates and reformists have historically been successful in mobilizing social groups around elections. On this occasion, all the important players in the reformist camp effectively rallied behind Rouhani.
During his campaign, Rouhani promised to open up the political space and adopt a rational foreign policy. Raisi primarily focused on pro-poor economic programmes. In many ways, his visions and ideas echoed those of the supreme leader: anti-Western sentiment, social conservatism and a ‘revolutionary’ approach to both the economy and foreign policy.
Prior to the election, rumours circulated about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its support for Raisi. Memories of the 2009 election, when the IRGC helped to get Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected, raised concerns among Rouhani’s supporters of vote rigging. Despite rising tensions, however, the election was declared fair, transparent and peaceful.
Raisi’s rival won in a landslide, with 23,549,616 (38.3 per cent) of the 42,382,390 votes. Raisi received 15,786,449 votes. He reacted by asking the Guardian Council to investigate ‘violations of the law’ before and during the election, suggesting that irregularities had benefitted his rival. He also refused to congratulate Rouhani on his win.
Following his electoral defeat, it now seems unlikely that Raisi will become the next supreme leader. Nevertheless, he will remain an influential political and religious figure in the Iranian establishment. He continues to control the wealthiest foundation in the Muslim world and has close ties to both Khamenei and the IRGC. This could help him to secure other powerful positions, such as the head of the judiciary, as well as posts in unelected but influential state organs that are directly controlled by the supreme leader.
Despite this, his future is uncertain. Following Rouhani’s re-election, the power struggle between the moderates and hardliners has intensified. The result of this power struggle could impact on Raisi’s career. Historically, the hardliners have had the upper hand In Iranian factional politics. Unlike previous reformist leaders, however, Rouhani seems determined to challenge the hardliners. Should the hardliners lose ground in this factional warfare, Raisi will pay a price. For now, however, he remains an influential player in the corridors of the Iranian deep state.