Even by Iran standards, Raisi is a brute

Internally, things look very bleak for Iranians


2G4F140 Iranian President elect Ebrahim Raisi attends a press conference for speaking with local and international media in Tehran. (Photo by Sobhan Farajvan / Pacific Press/Sipa USA)

Last Friday, Ebrahim Raisi was elected President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to the evident satisfaction of its lugubriously menacing Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi becomes the regime’s eighth president and is — even by its own sadistic standards — the most brutal person to have held that office.

Raisi is the head of the judiciary, the culmination of a legal career that really got going when, at the age of just 25, he was made deputy prosecutor in Tehran. In that role he was infamous as one of four judges that sat on a series of secret tribunals that “re-tried” thousands of prisoners for crimes for which they had already been convicted. In truth, it was a judicially-organised massacre. Most of the prisoners were members of the opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and the regime wanted them gone. So four men went into the prisons and out came thousands in body bags.

This is the man who won the election. He annihilated all opposition, hoovering up 72.38 per cent of the vote. This was unsurprising, given that the Guardian Council (the unelected body responsible for “vetting” candidates to ensure their suitability for office) had barred all the candidates from standing who might realistically have posed a threat to him.

If you want to understand just how far down the road to pathology the regime has come, understand this: one of those prevented from standing was former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Shouty, bigoted and unreasonable, Ahmadinejad was once a shorthand for the Islamic Republic’s intransigence and fundamentalism on the world stage. Now he finds himself rejected by Khamenei and those around him after he publicly criticised the government during the 2018-19 protests in Iran. Some reports even suggested he was arrested on charges of “inciting violence”. After his disqualification, Ahmadinejad then began to lead public protests, declaring he was boycotting the “sham” election. This from a man whose own fraudulent election in 2009 led to the Green Movement protests that captured world attention and — briefly — made it look like the regime might fall.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad complains about electoral fraud, it’s clear that two things have happened. Firstly, satire has been rendered impossible. Second, not only has the horse of reform bolted before the stable door can be shut, but it has burned down the stable, too.

This is the point. In clearing the way for Raisi, Khamenei is putting his own man in power. The two have been close since Khamenei was Prime Minister in 1981. It is Khamenei who has pushed Raisi’s career through the decades and it is Khamenei who has ensured that Raisi is now president and therefore the second most powerful man in Iran.

Hardline capture of state apparatus is complete. The question is: what now? Internally, things look very bleak for Iranians. There will certainly be more suppression, and less freedom to speak and gather and write and publish – so damning for a people so literate and cultured.

Externally, things are less clear. The most immediate issue facing Raisi is what to do about the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Security Council powers and Germany) that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for its agreement to dismantle elements of its nuclear programme. The deal was criticiced by Israel and former US President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew from it in May 2018. Iran has since restarted uranium enrichment (its best potential path to a nuclear bomb), though at levels not sufficient for weapons grade use and taking steps that are easily reversible. But the signal is clear: make a deal or we push on.

The Biden administration wants a deal, and so do the European powers, as well as China and Russia. The problem is that under the JCPOA, nuclear issues were deliberately ‘ring fenced’. Iran’s wider regional behaviour was not on the table. So while Tehran did scale back its nuclear activities, it continued to kill in Syria and Iraq and arm its proxies across the region, not to mention expanding its ballistic missile programme.

At his first press conference, Raisi talked favorably of restarting negotiations. As he would. Iran needs sanctions relief more than ever. But once more, he dismissed any talk of tying a deal to Iran’s wider behaviour. He was at pains to insist that its ballistic missile programme was “not negotiable”.

But the Islamic Republic has serious financial problems. It has never been poorer; it has never been more alone. This doesn’t mean it will fold, but it does mean that the P5+1 must push it. Iran can no longer be allowed to mete out violence and death to its own people and across the Middle East. It must no longer seed its missiles among its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon. Now is the time to get a better deal. It is a geopolitical imperative for regional and global stability, and a moral debt that we owe to the greatest victims of Khamenei and his acolytes: the Iranian people.

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