Controversy on Raisi Visa for U.N. Summit

After President Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration on August 5, the Biden administration faced the awkward issue of whether to grant a visa to a man sanctioned by the U.S. government and who played a role in the massacre of some 5,000 political prisoners. Raisi, like previous Iranian presidents, may seek to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City in September. In November 2019, the Trump administration sanctioned Raisi, then head of the national judiciary, “for being a person appointed to a position as a state official of Iran by the Supreme Leader of Iran.” The Treasury also noted Raisi's involvement in the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners and the crackdown on protesters after the disputed 2009 presidential election.

The United States is obliged to issue visas to diplomats “without charge and as promptly as possible,” according to the 1947 U.N. Headquarters Agreement Act. But Congress sought to limit the requirement when it authorized President Harry Truman to enter into the agreement. Congress passed a joint resolution stipulating that the U.N. agreement would not weaken the “right of the United States to safeguard its own security.” The United States subsequently denied visas for foreigners, including Iranians involved in the 1979 hostage crisis, on national security grounds.


Six Republican Senators Urge Biden to Deny Raisi Visa

On July 28, six Republican senators urged President to deny visas to Raisi and other senior officials who may travel to New York City. The senators — Tom Cotton (Arkansas), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Rick Scott (Florida), Marco Rubio (Florida), and Ted Cruz (Texas) —cited Raisi’s record of human rights abuses. They warned that allowing Raisi to visit the United States “would legitimize his repression, undermine America’s moral leadership, and potentially endanger our national security, given the likely presence of intelligence agents in the Iranian traveling party.” The following is the full text of the letter.

Dear President Biden,

We are writing to express our concern about the prospect of incoming Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, visiting the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

Raisi’s record as a violator of human rights is long-standing and clear. In 1988, during his tenure as the deputy prosecutor of Tehran, Raisi served on a four-member Death Commission which oversaw the killing of over 5,000 prisoners, including women and children.  The Death Commission conducted interviews that lasted only minutes to determine a prisoner’s loyalty to the Islamic Republic of Iran, then sentenced them to death without a lawyer, right to appeal, or fair trial.  The executions, conducted by hanging or firing squad, often occurred on the same day as the Death Commission’s interrogations.  After burying the dead in unmarked mass graves, Iranian officials refused to notify families for months and never shared with them the locations of their graves.  Raisi’s Death Commission executed children as young as 15.

Ebrahim Raisi is proud of his record. In 2018, Raisi defended his role on the 1988 Death Commission, calling it “divine punishment” and “one of the proud achievements of the system.”  In the thirty years since the commission, Raisi continued to subject the Iranian people to extrajudicial prosecution, torture, and execution.  During the 2009 Green Revolution, when Iranians protested the rigged presidential election, Raisi served as Iran’s deputy chief justice. In this role, Raisi was directly involved in the regime’s prosecution and death sentences of peaceful protesters. Years after, when Raisi served as prosecutor general, he advocated for maintaining Iran’s house arrests on Green Revolution leaders. 

Raisi also consistently supports inhumane punishment against the Iranian people. In 2010, Raisi celebrated the Iranian judiciary’s amputation of a prisoner’s hand for stealing as “a source of pride for us.”  More recently, Ebrahim Raisi led Iran’s judiciary from 2019 to 2021. During his tenure, the judiciary regularly tortured its prisoners.
Recently, the United States designated Raisi for his role as head of Iran’s judiciary in facilitating the Supreme Leader of Iran’s tyrannical agenda, where he oversaw the state’s crackdown and murder of non-violent protesters.  In 2019, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Raisi, pursuant to Executive Order 13876, for his oversight over the executions of juveniles, torture, and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of Iranian prisoners, including amputations.

Ebrahim Raisi should remain sanctioned under U.S. law. If the United Nations General Assembly maintains its current plans to allow some in-person attendance, the White House should deny Raisi and other Iranian leaders visas to attend. Allowing Raisi to travel to the United States—to the same city where the Iranian regime just tried to kidnap a U.S. citizen—would legitimize his repression, undermine America’s moral leadership, and potentially endanger our national security, given the likely presence of intelligence agents in the Iranian traveling party.

There is strong precedent for denying an entry visa to a foreign leader. In 1988, the United States barred PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat from entering the United States to attend a meeting of the United Nations. In 2014, President Obama denied an entry visa to Iranian Ambassador Hamid Aboutalebi, who was involved in taking American diplomats hostage in 1979. In 2020, the United States declined to issue a visa for Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Ebrahim Raisi’s role in the Death Commissions, brutal crackdowns on Iranian protesters, and his association with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should disqualify him from receiving a visa to the United States.

Thank you for considering this important matter. We look forward to hearing from you.

Tom Cotton
Chuck Grassley
Marsha Blackburn
Rick Scott
Marco Rubio
Ted Cruz