On June 19, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and the chief of the national judiciary, won Iran’s 2021 presidential election with 62 percent of the vote, although only 48.8 percent of eligible voters participated. It was the lowest turnout in a presidential election since the 1979 revolution. A mid-ranking hojatoleslam, Raisi is now widely considered a potential successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader, who has been in power since 1989, is now 82. The only precedent for the transfer of power was when Khamenei, then president, succeeded revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Raisi is considered hardline on both domestic and foreign policy. He believes in strict adherence to Islamic law. “The preservation of moral values in society is a requirement of Sharia, a requirement of law and civil rights,” he said in 2020. He has a long record of repressing dissent; as a judge, he supported and imposed the death sentence.
Raisi is best known for his role in the so-called “death commission” that ordered the extrajudicial executions of between 4,000 and 5,000 political prisoners in 1988, according to Amnesty International. “Thousands of political dissidents were systematically subjected to enforced disappearance in Iranian detention facilities across the country and extrajudicially executed pursuant to an order issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran and implemented across prisons in the country. Many of those killed during this time were subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the process,” it said. Raisi was reportedly one of the four members of the commission.
The U.S. Treasury sanctioned Raisi in November 2019 for his role in domestic repression. It cited his role in the 1988 massacre as well as his judicial post in a system that executes minors. During the 2021 campaign, Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said, “Raisi is a pillar of a system that jails, tortures, and kills people for daring to criticize state policies. Instead of running for president, he should be tried in an impartial court and held accountable for his role in the extrajudicial executions of thousands of prisoners,” Ghaemi added.
On economic policy, Raisi has made anti-corruption the central theme of his career. In 2019, he said, “We will not only cut off the fingers but chop off the arms of the corrupt.” He has called for more government financial support for the poor and advocated for a so-called resistance economy. “The approach that [says] we should wait for foreign investment and for foreigners to resolve our issues is wrong," he said during his first run for the presidency in 2017.
On social issues, he has adopted the language of so-called “principlists” loyal to the early ideals of the 1979 revolution, including segregation of the sexes. “Preventing the mixing of men and women in the office environment is in order for men and women to be able to provide better services to the people, and this is a good move to create a suitable working environment and effort for women,” he said in 2014. “This is completely defensible, and the first defenders will be women.” He has also called hijab, or modest dress, for women part of “our national law and culture.”
On foreign policy, he has backed Iranian support for militant allies. During the 11-day clashes between Israel and Gaza in 2021, he said, “The heroic resistance of Palestine once again forced the occupying Zionist regime to retreat and take another step towards the lofty ideal of liberating Holy Quds. The Palestinian resistance in Gaza and the Palestinian youth have been able to bring great victory to the Muslim and Arab ummah, bring honor to the Muslims and freedom seekers of the world, and compromising governments that have been competing for some time to normalize relations with the Israeli child-killing regime and make them more ashamed.”
Raisi has condemned U.S. policy on Iran and punitive sanctions. “Americans have always pursued arrogant plans towards the Iranian people, and every government that came to power followed this policy,” he said in April 2021. But in his first press conference as president-elect on June 21, he backed the United States and Iran both returning to full compliance in the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “We support the negotiations that guarantee our national interests,” he said. “America should immediately return to the deal and fulfil its obligations under the deal.” But he ruled out meeting with President Joe Biden.
Raisi was born in 1960. He grew up in Mashhad, the site of Iran’s holiest Shiite shrine. Raisi was raised in a clerical family. As a teenager, Raisi participated in the 1979 revolution, which toppled the Western-backed shah. He attended seminary in Qom, the center of Shiite learning. He later attended Shahid Motahari University in Tehran, where he received a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence and law. He wears a black turban, denoting descendance from the family of the Prophet Mohammed.
Raisi became a prosecutor in the early 1980s. He worked in Karaj and Hamadan. In 1985, Raisi was appointed deputy prosecutor general of Tehran. He was a pivotal player in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. At 27, Raisi was the youngest of four members named to the so-called Death Committee for Tehran after the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa at the end of the eight-year war with Iraq. In July 1988, he decreed that all prisoners steadfast in their support for the opposition and “waging war on God” were “condemned to execution.”
Raisi served as prosecutor general of Tehran between 1989 and 1994. He was head of the General Inspection Organization, which is charged with investigating corruption and financial misdeeds, from 1994 to 2004. He was named first deputy head of the judiciary from 2004 to 2014. In 2006, Raisi was elected to the Assembly of Experts, which is charged with appointing and overseeing the supreme leader. After the disputed 2009 presidential election triggered months of public protests, Raisi backed the brutal crackdowns and mass incarcerations. He was Iran’s prosecutor general from 2014 to 2016.
In 2016, Supreme Leader Khamenei appointed Raisi to be custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a charitable foundation with assets reportedly worth billions of dollars; he held the position for three years. In the 2017 presidential election, Raisi came in second, with 38 percent of the vote in a four-way contest, but he lost to incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who won 57 percent of the vote. Khamenei appointed him Iran’s chief justice in 2019. He also became as deputy chief of the Assembly of Experts in 2019. The following are remarks by Raisi by issue.
Remarks after the election
- On the nuclear deal: “We support the negotiations that guarantee our national interests ... America should immediately return to the deal and fulfil its obligations under the deal,” he said during a press conference on June 21, 2021. “The JCPOA has been violated by the United States and the Europeans have also not abided by their commitments under the multilateral agreement.”
- On U.S. sanctions: “We tell the United States that you have to remove all sanctions [imposed on Iran] and must return [to the nuclear deal] and fulfill your obligations. Europeans must not be influenced by the U.S. pressure and must act upon their commitments. This is what the Iranian nation wants from you,” he said during a press conference on June 21, 2021. “Up until today, maximum pressure was not successful on our people, they [the United States] must change their minds, and come back to reason. Our people have shown they can withstand the pressure.”
- On regional influence and missiles: “We emphasize that the U.S. government should be sincere towards its commitments while noting that the regional and missile issues are not negotiable,” he said during a press conference on June 21, 2021.
- On foreign policy: “Our foreign policy will not be limited to the nuclear deal…We will have interaction with the world. We will not tie the Iranian people's interests to the nuclear deal,” he said during a press conference on June 21, 2021.
“Expanding relations with neighbors is the first priority of the next Iranian government,” he said on July 20, 2021 in a call with Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
- On Palestinians: “Rest assured that Iran will continue to defend Palestine and support its people until the liberation of Quds (Jerusalem),” he told Ismail Hanieyh, the leader of Hamas, and Ziad al Nakhalah, the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, on July 14, 2021.
- On Saudi Arabia: “In the view of the Islamic Republic, reopening embassies between Iran and Saudi Arabia is something that can happen… And there should be no problem for relations between the two countries as well as dialogue with all regional countries,” he said during a press conference on June 21, 2021.
- On Yemen: “Stability must return so that the people of Yemen can decide for themselves ... whom they wish to give those management responsibilities to. And again we reiterate the most immediate cessation of attacks by the Saudis against Yemen,” he said during a press conference on June 21, 2021.
- On Syria: “The upcoming Iranian government has plans to actively participate in the reconstruction of Syria,” Raisi told Syrian President Bashar al Assad on July 5, 2021.
- On Qatar: “The ties between the two nations of Iran and Qatar are so strong that various shocks have not been able to disrupt them,” he said during a phone call with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani on June 25, 2021.
- On Afghanistan: “Afghanistan’s security is important to us and this security must be established by Afghans,” he told Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on July 5, 2021.
- On China: “We have had a good relationship with China since the Islamic Revolution. There is great potential for cooperation,” he said during a press conference on June 21, 2021. “Implementing the [25-year] comprehensive partnership will definitely be on the agenda.”
- On the economy: “Our priorities in this government will be to improve the business situation and improve the living conditions of the people,” he said during a press conference on June 21, 2021.“We are going to concentrate on [boosting domestic] production… and we are going to promote cash flow in that direction.” The government will prioritize “reducing bureaucracy because bureaucracy prevents development.”
- On corruption: “One of the expectations of the people from the new government is to eradicate corruption” he said during a meeting with the heads of intelligence and supervisory bodies on July 14, 2021.
- On COVID-19: “Undoubtedly, what has been done so far in areas of vaccination has been necessary but definitely not enough,” he said at a meeting of authorities and experts on the coronavirus on July 17, 2021.
Remarks before the election:
- On the nuclear deal: “Some [politicians] hold sessions to see what they can get from westerners. If they had held sessions [at home] on how to boost production and remove obstacles, many problems would have been resolved by now,” he said in Tehran on April 26, 2021. Yet during a presidential debate on June 12, 2021, he said, “We will abide by the JCPOA, which the supreme leader approved, but you (Hemmati) cannot implement it. Implementing the JCPOA requires a strong government.”
- On Iran’s missiles: “Where in the world does a government weaken its defensive potentials, missiles for preventing wars?” he said during the 2017 presidential election.
- On U.S. sanctions: “Any elected government should prioritize lifting sanctions. But we shouldn’t allow sanctions to affect our economy,” he said during a presidential debate on June 8, 2021.
- On the economy: “What we see in the country today has nothing to do with sanctions, it is related to internal mismanagement. Sanctions have created problems, but they are more about mismanagement,” he said on television on June 7. During his first presidential campaign in 2017, he said. “The only attitude to solve problems is a revolutionary spirit.” He vowed to increase subsidies to the poor and create millions of jobs under what he called “jihadi management.”
- On the 2021 election: “God, you are witness that I have never been after position or power, and even at this stage I have entered the field despite personal will and interests, and only to serve my duty to answer the people and elites and create hope… I have come as an independent to the stage to make changes in the executive management of the country and to fight poverty, corruption, humiliation and discrimination,” he said in announcing his candidacy on May 15, 2021.
- On the Rouhani administration: “This (outgoing administration) is like a goalkeeper who lets in 17 goals… and then says without me it would have been 30 goals.”