Ebrahim Raisi: the hardline judge with the patronage of Iran’s supreme leader

Conservative cleric boosted his profile as head of judiciary after failure in 2017 presidential election

Ebrahim Raisi waves to supporters at a campaign rally in Tehran during the 2017 presidential election. Vahid Salemi / AP Photo
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The cleric Ebrahim Raisi has continued to rise up the ranks of Iran’s political and bureaucratic machinery despite suffering a heavy electoral defeat in 2017 as the conservative choice for president.

Tipped by some to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, the 60 year old with decades of service is seen as a loyalist and powerful fixer behind the scenes.

But talk has cooled of him emerging as the senior leader after he won only 38 per cent of the vote in 2017 and failed to prevent the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani. Mr Raisi remains a staunch supporter of Mr Khamenei and opposes negotiations with the West.

Despite the election failure, Mr Raisi was appointed head of the judiciary in 2019 – and was added swiftly to the US sanctions list for promoting oppression at home and abroad. The US cited the execution of children, the oppression of human rights lawyers and the campaign against protesters that followed the 2009 election.

American officials highlighted his involvement in a “death commission” that ordered the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 while he was deputy prosecutor of Tehran. He has never publicly acknowledged his role in the executions, even while campaigning for the presidency.

Born into a religious family in the holy city of Mashhad in August, 1960, Mr Raisi was soon embedded within the conservative elite.

After the 1979 revolution, he was selected for special training by the clerical establishment and studied under Mr Khamenei, before he became supreme leader.

Mr Raisi rose quickly through the judicial ranks during the 1980s and after the massacre became prosecutor general of Tehran in 1989 and of Iran in 2014.

Two years later, he was picked to run the Imam Reza charity foundation, a huge business conglomerate with interests from IT and banking to construction and agriculture fuelled by donations and assets seized after the revolution.

Its business activities are opaque and the foundation is answerable only to Mr Khamenei. Upon his appointment, Mr Khamenei identified Mr Raisi as a “trustworthy person” increasing speculation that he was being groomed as a potential successor.

His stock fell with defeat in 2017, despite securing more than 15 million votes, but he appears to have retained the faith of Mr Khamenei. Human rights groups were outraged when he was chosen for the top judicial role given his past.

Mr Raisi is weighing up his options before June’s presidential election and has garnered support from prominent figures for another run, said Sanim Vakil, deputy director of Chatham House’s Middle East programme.

“Raisi has sought to present himself as a judicial reformer and protector of good governance – moves that have won him greater publicity and public support,” she wrote in an article for The Atlantic Council.

But she said that another damaging loss at the ballot box if he decided to run could harm his efforts to become the next supreme leader.