Ebrahim Raisi became a household name in Iran when he ran as a conservative candidate in the 2017 presidential elections opposite President Hassan Rouhani. Winning only 38 percent of the vote, Raisi lost the election to the incumbent. What Raisi gained through this defeat, though, was national notoriety and the support of fifteen million people. Moreover, since then, Raisi has not only emerged as a behind-the-scenes player and Supreme Leader loyalist, but has also risen through the ranks by becoming head of the judiciary and a potential conservative political leader of influence within the competitive Iranian political system.
Raisi is now weighing his options in advance of the June 18 presidential election. Thus far, a petition is calling on Iranians to sign up in support of his candidacy. The conservative Combatant Clerical Association has declared their support for Raisi and Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf has indicated that he will not run in the election, favoring Raisi’s candidacy instead. Raisi’s participation in the election could crowd out other competitors and have personal consequences for a man who has been tipped as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei has stated that the ideal candidate for president should be “young and pious.” At sixty, Raisi partially fits the bill. He is a man who has worked his way up and through many of the Islamic Republic’s important institutions with deep ties to the intelligence, security, and judicial structures and the Supreme Leader himself. Hailing from a small village near Mashhad like Khamenei, Raisi has also married well, having wedded the daughter of Ayatollah Alam-al-Hoda, a Mashhad Friday prayer leader, who is also close to Khamenei.
At a young age, Raisi studied at the Qom seminary at the Boroujerdi school. Despite his religious education, Raisi is not a high-ranking cleric and has few religious publications, though he is often referred to as “ayatollah.” As a result, he has not taught in top seminaries. Raisi was a student of Khamenei’s Kharej seminars from 1991 to 1994, making him close to Khamenei’s coterie and revealing his limited association with other seminarians. Raisi also has an academic background with a PhD from Shahid Motahari University.
Raisi’s career officially began in the judiciary. In 1981, he was appointed as the prosecutor of the city of Karaj. Shortly after, he was also chosen as the prosecutor of the city of Hamedan and served both positions simultaneously. In 1985, he became deputy prosecutor in Tehran, leading to his 1988 involvement in the mass executions of thousands of imprisoned dissidents. The 1988 massacre has been a clear stain on his career that has also landed him on the human rights sanctions list.
After the founder of the Islamic Republic’s death in 1989, Raisi was selected as Tehran prosecutor and continued to rise through the judicial ranks, working in the judiciary under Chief Justice Mohammad Yazdi, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, and finally Sadeq Larijani. From 2004 until 2014, Raisi served as first deputy chief justice of Iran and was appointed in 2014. During that time, Raisi was elected to the Fourth Assembly of Experts in 2006, a body that oversees the Supreme Leader’s performance. After two years, Raisi was elected to the presiding board where he has remained a member. Raisi also serves as the Secretary of the Investigation Committee within the Assembly of Experts. In 2009, he replaced Hassan Rouhani as secretary of the Assembly of Experts and was re-elected to the body in 2016.
In 2014, Raisi was appointed as Attorney-General of Iran, a position that he held until 2016, when he resigned to become chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, a prominent foundation that runs the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad. He has also served as Special Clerical Court prosecutor and has been a member of the Planning Council of Mashhad seminaries.
In 2016, Raisi was appointed as guardian of Astan Quds Razavi, the second person to hold this position since 1979, which elevated him further and gave him a public position. Although not yet nationally well-known at the time, Raisi had access to the shrine’s finances from this post, which provides financial largesse to religious groups and institutions and employs over twelve thousand people—making it the largest holding company in eastern Iran. His appointment was a growing reflection of his closeness to the Supreme Leader, who sought to attach a loyalist to the post after the death of Ayatollah Vaez Tabasi. Khamenei also designated Raisi to be a member of the board of trustees of Setad Ejraiye, a foundation that manages the selling of property seized or abandoned during the revolution, further expanding Raisi’s knowledge of the Supreme Leader’s financial links.
Two years after his loss in the 2017 presidential election, Khamenei appointed Raisi as head of the judiciary, offering the cleric the opportunity to improve his public image and increase media exposure. From this perch, 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. He has launched a political and economic anti-corruption campaign purging the ministry of sixty corrupt judges, including Sadeq Larijani’s economic deputy Akbar Tabari. Raisi’s campaign has also resulted in the arrests of high-level officials, both reformist and conservative. These include Hassan Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereidoun; Hadi Razavi, the son-in-law of Mohammad Shariatmadari, the minister of cooperatives, labor, and social welfare of Rouhani’s cabinet; and Issa Sharifi, a former deputy who served under Qalibaf when he was mayor of Tehran, to name a few. Mahmoud Vaezi, Rouhani’s chief of staff, and Rouhani’s vice president Eshaq Jahangiri have also been investigated.
In other moves, Raisi has put forward legislation to ban public officials and their family members from studying abroad, supported domestic violence legislation protecting women, removed the mandatory chador requirement for female prisoners, and is investigating the practice of organ donations for those sentenced to death. Most recently, on the forty-second anniversary of the Islamic revolution in February, Raisi was seen making a formal diplomatic visit to Iraq—potentially to boost his election credentials—where he was received by Iraqi President Bahram Salih and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. He also paid tribute to Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani by visiting his place of death in Baghdad.
It’s important to note that Raisi maintains close relations with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who have further supported his anti-corruption efforts. IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami has lauded the judiciary as one of the country’s most important institutions and has committed the IRGC to work alongside it in the fight against corruption and protecting the country’s security.
Raisi’s CV shows his clear progression and promotion through important Iranian political institutions. Loyal to the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Republic, and its revolutionary ideology has allowed Raisi to emerge as a potential contender for the position of Supreme Leader after Khamenei’s death. With few clear competitors for the top job, it is worth considering why Raisi would risk his reputation and resume by throwing his turban into the presidential ring. Another loss at the ballot box could potentially damage Raisi’s public image and threaten the boost to his reputation that was cultivated at the judiciary. Moreover, no Iranian president to date, despite many efforts made, has managed to assert presidential authority over the myriad of unelected state institutions.
On the other hand, a Raisi victory could cement a conservative monopoly on formal and informal institutions allowing for a stronger consensus to develop within the system on critical issues like negotiations with the US or succession. Winning the presidency could allow Raisi to follow in Khamenei’s footsteps, moving from the executive to that of Supreme Leader. In calculating his next acts, Raisi’s decision will undoubtedly reveal his appetite for risk and further reward in Iran’s notoriously factionalized system.
Sanam Vakil is the deputy director of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
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