How Iran’s Hanging Judge Became President

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s power politics led to the rise of the most blood-soaked Iranian presidency since 1979

How Iran’s Hanging Judge Became President
Ebrahim Raisi / Atta Kenare /AFP via Getty Images

On March 4, 2016, just as Iranians were about to get ready for their New Year holidays, a powerful octogenarian cleric died in his ICU bed at Mashhad’s Imam Reza Hospital, following a week of being in a deep coma. The ruling elite of the Islamic Republic of Iran is filled with such figures, and Abbas Vaez Tabasi’s death hardly made international news. Compared to his fellow clerics who filled most of the country’s top political and administrative positions, Vaez Tabasi’s job as the custodian of the shrine of Imam Reza, the only Shiite imam buried in Iran, seemed marginal.

As often with Iran, you had to read between the lines to notice important shifts. Although few people could have guessed at the time, a pair of opaque appointments in Iran’s second biggest city offered a key to the country’s future. The all-powerful Supreme Leader Khamenei was using the occasion to further entrench his own power and eliminate his rivals.

Matyas Rakosi, Hungary’s postwar Stalinist dictator, was known to be fond of what he termed “salami tactics,” cutting out his opponents like slicing cured meat. In a similar way, Khamenei has been able to amass absolute power in his own hands by getting rid of all notable rivals. The culmination of this strategy happened June 18, in the first effectively uncompetitive presidential election since 1993, the results of which had been known weeks before any voting took place.

The elections became a coronation for Ayatollah Embrahim Raisi, who will be the first president of Khamenei’s reign who will have unquestionable loyalty to the man — a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic. But to chart Raisi’s path to power, we need to backtrack to 2016 and the death of a seemingly inconsequential old man.

Vaez Tabasi was appointed to his job by the regime founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on February 14, 1979, a mere three days after the revolution, before the Islamic Republic had even come into being. In his 37 years on the job, he had turned what sounded like a ceremonial religious position to one of the most powerful jobs in the Middle East. The holy “shrine” was now a multibillion-dollar business conglomerate with hands in industries as diverse as shipping and construction. The role also changed Vaez Tabasi from the young firebrand of the 1960s who helped funnel arms to Islamist militants known for assassinating their opponents to a scion of moderately conservative interests who detested the adventurist policies of hard-line revolutionaries close to Khamenei.

Khamenei’s rise to absolute power had been fueled by such hard-line policies and his reliance on the behemoth militia known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Men like Vaez Tabasi, who had long discovered that revolutionary Khomeinism of their younger years was bad for business and not suited to the 21st century, had become a thorn in the side of Khamenei. Vaez Tabasi and his ilk found an ally in Khamenei’s old ally-turned-rival-turned-opponent, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In his quest to consolidate power, Khamenei systematically undermined all rival power centers.

To keep an eye on Vaez Tabasi and prevent him from turning Mashhad into his fiefdom, Khamenei appointed firebrand cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda as the city’s Friday Prayer Leader in 2005. With Vaez Tabasi’s death in 2016, Khamenei went on to make two more crucial appointments: He promoted Alamolhoda to his personal envoy to the Khorasan Razavi province (where Mashhad is), and he replaced Vaez Tabasi with a little-known 56-year-old Mashhadi cleric who had spent his entire career in the Islamic Republic’s notoriously brutal judiciary. His name was Ebrahim Raisi — and he also happened to be Alamolhoda’s son-in-law.

In a move little noticed by most of the media, Rafsanjani’s pictures were soon taken down in some of the institutions run by the Shrine. Mashhad had fallen to Khamenei. There was little Rafsanjani, whose power had once earned him the nickname King Akbar, could now do. After all, even his attempt to run again for the presidency in 2013 had been blocked by the Guardian Council, the vetting body dominated by Khamenei loyalists. A few months later, Rafsanjani died a suspicious and shocking death. Nothing seemed to stop Raisi.

Who were Alamolhoda and Raisi, and why had Khamenei elevated them to the highest echelons of power?

Being a Mashhadi himself, Khamenei knew the city’s politics well. A relatively progressive political activist in his youth, Khamenei might have once balked at a reactionary thug like Alamolhoda who prided himself on advocating gender segregation in universities, preventing concerts from taking place in Mashhad, attacking his opponents for allegedly idealizing Italian actress Sophia Loren, and promising to “cut to pieces” the British ambassador to Tehran along with Iranian students who refused to join anti-American chants. But the Supreme Leader long ago learned that if he is to bolster his power against the masses clamoring for democratization, he has to rely on precisely such elements. For Khamenei, Alamolhoda mattered due to his unshakeable personal loyalty. To oppose Khamenei was to oppose the Quran and Shiite imams, Alamolhoda quipped in a speech in 2009, just as protesters were shouting “Death to the Dictator” all over Iran.

But if the buffoonish Alamolhoda is good for running a bully pulpit against reformists, Khamenei had bigger plans for Raisi.

But if the buffoonish Alamolhoda is good for running a bully pulpit against reformists, Khamenei had bigger plans for Raisi. Born in 1960 to a clerical family in Mashhad’s genteel Noqan quarter, Raisi lost his father at the age 5 and, like many a cleric’s son, headed to the seminary from an early age. He was in his early teens when he donned the clerical garb and enrolled in Mashhad’s seminary. He was 15 when he moved to the center of Shiite learning, the city of Qom. Like his mentor Khamenei (under whom he studied for 14 years), his family claim to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, thus earning the right to wear a black turban and enjoy admiration of many of the faithful Shiites who believe in the charismatic powers of the prophet’s progeny. Had it not been for the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which the 18-year-old Raisi is not known to have played any role, he would have probably dedicated his life to religious education and preaching.

But the revolution did occur, and Khomeini surprised his erstwhile lay allies by showing an early determination to give a central space to the clerics in the budding Islamic Republic of Iran. This was no easy task. Like most of their counterparts around the world, the majority of Iranian Shiite clerics had not been into politics, let alone the type of mass revolution headed by Khomeini. But on his side Khomeini had dozens of clerical lieutenants who would help purge their lay rivals and build a clerically dominated state without precedent. The most talented of these lieutenants, Mohammad Beheshti, is known to have gathered 70 young clerics to build up new ideological institutions of the republic, the political commissars to take over state functions at all levels.

If some functions could be carried over from the old regime, the Judiciary needed to be built anew. An institution that had women as judges (including Shirin Ebadi, decades later Iran’s first Nobel laureate) and whose progressive family legislation was written by feminist intellectuals was not exactly what Khomeini and company had in mind for their new Islamic society. As judicial staff lost their jobs en masse, “revolutionary courts” were set up, their most pressing task often mass execution of former regime officials and an ever-widening circle of political rivals.

The 19-year-old Raisi was one of the 70 clerics. What he lacked in charisma or worldly knowledge, he made up for in steely determination and capacity for brutality. In his first assignment he was sent to help set up revolutionary courts in Masjed Soleiman in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, dominated by the communist-aligned oil workers who had helped the revolution but were now brutally suppressed. He then briefly served in an “ideological education” center for the regime cadre in northeastern Shahrood before being appointed, in 1980, as the top prosecutor for the city of Karaj, an industrial suburb of Tehran. Shortly thereafter, while keeping the job in Karaj, he also got the top prosecutor job in Hamedan.

The first decade of the revolution was its most brutal, and much violence was meted out by the Judiciary. Thousands of political opponents (nationalists, Islamists, communists) were executed, and you could go to jail for owning a VCR, a violin, or a set of playing cards or for wearing a short-sleeved shirt or a loose veil. The ultimate system loyalist, Raisi was just the right man for enforcing such brutalities and rising through the ranks. In 1985, he was appointed Tehran’s deputy prosecutor. In the summer of 1988, he was one of the four people on the infamous Panel of Death that sent thousands of political prisoners to their abrupt deaths, even those who had already served most of their sentences. An order by Khomeini had been enough for this grave crime against humanity to be executed in a matter of weeks.

The tragedy was a turning point in Iranian history. Disturbed by the savagery, Khomeini’s respected heir apparent, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, resigned from his position after confronting Raisi and others in a private meeting in 1988 and warning them that they’ll go down in history as “great criminals.” With Khomeini dying shortly after, Khamenei came to power and loyalists were rewarded. Raisi was promoted to Tehran’s top provincial prosecutor. He has continued to serve in top jobs in the Judiciary to this day, bar the short 2016-2019 period when he headed the Shrine in Mashhad. Since 2012, he has also acted as the top prosecutor for the Special Court of Clergy, an ad hoc body created by the Islamic Republic that unleashed unprecedented, organized punishment on any of the Shiite clergy who didn’t toe the line. In 2016, Raisi helped prosecute Montazeri’s son, Ahmad, after he leaked the voice file of his father condemning Raisi and his supporters for their role in the 1988 massacre.

When Raisi emerged as the top pro-Khamenei, conservative candidate in the presidential election of 2017, the public had a chance to see him perform in a way they never had before. The dour, shadowy cleric used to sending people to their deaths with a signature and expressing pride in public hand and feet amputations during his reign now had to compete for votes. It was a lost game before it began. From the very first televised debate, it was clear that Raisi was no match to the centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who was running for reelection. Raisi could hardly produce a decent sound bite, let alone win popular votes. Even after all major conservatives, including the Tehran mayor Baqer Qalibaf, pulled out in his favor, even after he got an endorsement from the misogynistic and thuggish pop singer Amir Tataloo, Raisi lost with 38% of votes to Rouhani’s 57%. Not that losing democratic elections meant loss of power in the Islamic Republic. In 2019, Khamenei promoted Raisi to head the Judiciary, replacing Sadegh Larijani, whose politically aristocratic family had sided with Rouhani.

As Iran headed to presidential elections in 2021, Raisi’s name popped up again as the major conservative candidate. By now, Rouhani’s project was in utter disarray: Not only had he failed to keep up his promise of securing social rights for citizens, but his government had also taken part in suppressing two waves of nationwide economic-based protests in 2017-18 and 2019-20. His diplomatic achievement, the Iranian nuclear deal, had been destroyed by former President Donald Trump, whose “maximum pressure” policy had pushed Iran into its worst economic shape in decades.

Since the Islamic Republic has only ever allowed a very narrow circle of politicians to run for president, the pro-Khamenei conservatives should have had no problem beating pro-Rouhani centrists or reformists. This was no ordinary election, either. With Khamenei at 82, and not known to be a healthy man, whoever controlled the presidency would have a say in the power struggle that is sure to ensue upon the Supreme Leader’s death. For an ayatollah like Raisi, rising to the top job itself would be a possibility. But given his lackluster performance in 2017 and utter lack of rhetorical talent or charisma, could Raisi win the votes?

As it turned out, the Guardian Council, all of whose 12 members are picked directly or indirectly by Khamenei, left nothing to chance. It disqualified any and all notable rivals to Raisi so that, for the first time since 1993, the results of the presidential elections were preordained.

To assure Raisi’s coronation, the Guardian Council threw out not only the candidacy of pro-democracy reformists such as former deputy interior minister Mostafa Tajzadeh but even that of Ali Larijani, a moderate conservative and former speaker of parliament. The vetting body also disqualified military figures of the IRGC, chief among them the 52-year-old Sayid Mohammad who had headed the guards’ engineering and construction wing for years. In 2019, when ruminating on the future of his Islamic Republic, Khamenei had asserted that the days to come belonged to “the young, devout, and revolutionary” forces. Seen as a call for a generational shift, a mini version of Mao Zedong’s call to the Red Guards in the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966, many had expected 2021 to be the year in which the presidency would be passed over to a young man in khakis, perhaps someone like Mohammad. Not quite yet. Mohammad was disqualified and is reportedly being touted as the next mayor of Tehran, known to be a stepping stone for political ambition in the Islamic Republic.

The clerically dominated establishment of Iran is mostly gathered in the Guardian Council and in the Assembly of Experts, an 88-strong body of mostly conservative clerics that is constitutionally mandated with picking the next Supreme Leader. For the past three decades, Khamenei, a masterful tactician, has been able to strong-arm his rivals, men like Vaez Tabasi and Rafsanjani, out of all meaningful positions of power in such bodies. He has done so by relying on two major levers: reliable yes-men clerics like Raisi and the military muscle of the IRGC men who have also led the project of Iranian interventions in the Arab world, a cornerstone of Khamenei’s claim to revolutionary legitimacy.

The office of president, with its independent (even if very limited) electoral basis, is the last obstacle to the Grand Dictator. Every single one of the four presidents who’ve served under Khamenei, from the reformist Mohammad Khatami to hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have come to clash with him. Khatami and Ahmadinejad are today both political outsiders, with the latter boldly calling for an electoral boycott.

With Raisi’s elevation to power, this obstacle will be removed, and Khamenei will have as close to absolute power as he has ever enjoyed. But he will also lose the opportunity to act as a balancer between different factions that has been central to the longevity of his rule. With the population more dissatisfied than ever, there is now only one center of power to target. Khamenei might miss the days when some of this dissent could be challenged to either voting for reformists or challenging them. Additionally, the modus vivendi between the clerics and the Guards might not last forever. Upon Khamenei’s death, if he is succeeded by a weak figure like Raisi, the men with guns might dominate the men with turbans, with a host of unexpected consequences for the future of the Islamic Republic — and for the region in which it operates with so much fanfare.

As Raisi moves to his new office in the Qajar-era Saadabad Palace in northern Tehran, he might miss the days when he was in the shadows.

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