The pregnant woman screams with despair and rage. She’s exhausted, helpless. Her swollen belly — she’s almost nine months along now — writhes in agony. Her Iranian jail cell is tiny — just three by four yards — with a bed in the middle, next to which a large pool of blood is congealing on the floor. The air is dank, thick with the stench of sweat and sadism. A guard named Muhammad whips her hands with electricity cables; another, named Raheem, who is grotesquely fat, stands over her grinning as he slaps her face. Lash, slap, lash, slap. She screams. They smile.
It’s 1981 in the Iranian city of Hamadan, and Farideh Goodarzi, a supporter of the opposition group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) — an organization founded in 1965 by leftist students disgusted with the shah — is being tortured. The Revolutionary Guards return the next day, dragging her to another cell where, in the corner, a group of men have gathered to watch. They cheer Raheem as he strikes her over and over. Among the onlookers is a man set slightly apart. He had been watching since the day before. Like the mother, he’s only 21, but he has an air of command: He has made all this happen; he knows that to make the prisoners talk you must torture them — even if they’re nine months pregnant.
Dressed in black, Ebrahim Raisi has a dark beard and a scowling expression. He’s a judicial prosecutor who sees enemies of the Islamic Republic everywhere, and he knows he must crush them for the sake of the nascent state. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution is only two years old. It needs all the true believers it can get and Raisi is one of them. Filled with cold ambition and quiet, controlled anger, he aims to get to the top.
Almost 40 years later, he has. On Aug. 3, 2021, Raisi was inaugurated as the eighth president of the Islamic Republic. He will need to sort out the country’s finances and quell the uprisings around Iran while making progress on the nuclear file. And he must do all this while carrying out the wishes of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Now he is facing his first test. Last month, nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) restarted in Vienna. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump had unilaterally withdrawn his country’s participation in the nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — in 2018. Under the deal, Iran had accepted limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. But the Trump administration’s reimposition of U.S. sanctions has been followed by the Iranians’ resumption of uranium enrichment — their quickest path to a nuclear bomb. Several weeks in, the talks have so far yielded nearly nothing; the two sides remain far apart, and progress is almost nonexistent.
This is worrying. According to the November 2021 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran now possesses nearly 40 pounds of enriched uranium compared with a little more than 20 pounds in September, at a concentration of 60 percent (as opposed to the 3.67 percent permitted under the deal). The report also stated that agency inspectors entering Iranian nuclear sites had been intimidated and harassed. IAEA Director Gen. Rafael M. Grossi remains “deeply concerned that nuclear material has been present at three undeclared locations in Iran,” the report says.
U.S. President Joe Biden took office stressing that diplomacy would best contain Iran’s nuclear program. Khamenei won’t deal with the West: He leaves that to his presidents. Biden will need to go through Raisi, the most fundamentalist Iranian president the West has ever had to face.
But Raisi is more than just another hardliner we must deal with. His election marked another nadir in the Islamic Republic’s descent into unrelenting brutality and autocratic control, which is fitting because, in many regards, the story of Raisi’s life is also the story of the Islamic Republic. Understand the former and you understand the latter. You understand why one man’s growth in power correlates almost exactly to the state’s moral degeneration and why his rise through the establishment has meant the fall of so many around him.
If you search online you can find a photo of Raisi as a child. He looks around 8 or 9 years old, which dates the black and white photo from the late 1960s. Raisi’s hair is short, the features smooth and angular. His face seems almost expressionless, which is odd for a child of that age. But like all photos of autocrats and killers, there is little indication of what he will become.
When I look at this photograph, another one comes to mind. It’s of my mother, Leila, from about the same time, and it used to sit on a bookshelf in my family home in London. She’s in her early 20s at a party, dressed in a miniskirt and sleeveless top, her torso bisected by a brown leather belt. Smoking a cigarette, she wears dark eyeshadow and straight, red-brown bobbed hair that screams the swinging ’60s. The scene bursts with color. She could be in London or New York, but she’s in her home city of Tehran. Two photos, my mother and Ebrahim Raisi. Two contrasting images. Two different futures for Iran.
My mother’s family fled Iraq when things got bad for the Jews following the establishment of Israel. Family legend holds that my grandma just managed to escape the arrest warrant out for her because of her close connections to the Iraqi royal family. In Iran, my grandparents slowly rebuilt their fortune. They ended up, perhaps inevitably, in Shemiran, Tehran’s northernmost district, which sits at the end of the capital’s main shopping thoroughfare, Pahlavi (now Valiasr) Avenue, by the slope of Alborz Mountain.
Living in Shemiran was the epitome of success and leisure. As my aunt Tamara recalls, it well deserved its reputation for glamour: a place of perfumed scents and vines hanging over high walls; of well-hidden houses with large gardens. Those who lived here were the people who mattered in the age of Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — a mix of aristocracy and the successful middle classes: urbane, cosmopolitan and, increasingly, Western-educated — loosely known as the “ashrafiyan,” or nobles.
It was perhaps inevitable then that Ebrahim Raisi was born in Mashhad. The city in northeastern Iran is named for the shrine of Imam Reza (the eighth Shia Imam) and is considered the world’s third-holiest Shia shrine (after Najaf and Karbala in Iraq) and the holiest in Iran. Mashhad is a place of pilgrimage for Shia with over 20 million visitors each year. In Iran, people would tell me that the rich go to Mecca, the poor to Mashhad.
If the city breeds religious fervor, it also breeds its near constant attendant: social and political conservatism. Raisi was born in Mashhad’s Noghan neighborhood in 1960. His beginnings are marked by a fortunate confluence: of place and family. His father was a religious scholar and, perhaps more importantly, the family are Sayyids, claiming descent from the Prophet Mohammed and his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib through Huseyn ibn Ali, whose martyrdom at Karbala by the Caliph Yazid in 680 in modern Iraq is the defining event of Shia tradition.
The Islamic Republic always claimed to abhor the shah’s royal court, but in reality it has continued the tradition. It just changed what mattered and who could join. Raisi, a non-Tehrani from a religious background and with an impeccable Shia pedigree, would become one of its new “princes” or, as they would become satirically known — not least by the cosmopolitan middle classes — the “aghazadeh-ha” or “sons of the mullahs.”
Raisi was also favored by something else: time. He came of political age during revolutionary ferment. Once more, he was well placed. At age 15, he entered the seminary at Qom, the center of religious — and then activist — power in Iran.
Khomeini had lived there for decades and, in early 1963, began his denunciation of the shah’s “White Revolution,” a series of land reforms that also challenged Iran’s ulama (those who interpret religious law). The shah responded by sending an armored column to the city. The following year, he sent Khomeini into exile in Turkey.
In Shemiran things were also changing. “More and more Iranians were what one calls Westernized; women of the upper classes displayed their independence publicly,” Tamara told me. She remembers two friends of my mother’s, both the daughters of a high-ranking cleric. Both were extremely religious but somewhat apologetic about the head scarves they wore, which only covered a sliver of their hair. Times were good. But Tamara felt uneasy. “I knew that a worm was growing in the Pahlavi body politic,” she said.
“Certainly there was an understanding that stability in Iran could suddenly and irretrievably collapse, and that as Jews we were somewhat dependent on the munificence of the Shah,” she said. “I could sense real fear in the air. That was put to an end relatively quickly [with Khomeini’s exile]. Round one went to the shah.”
The 1960s and 1970s were for many a golden age of social mobility and cultural freedom, but the swell of political repression was growing. “The shah wanted total control of people’s thoughts and his SAVAK [the secret police] became increasingly prominent and cruel,” she said. Then, in 1971, came the celebrations for the 2,500th anniversary of Iran, a display of wealth and vulgarity that shocked even North Tehran.
And all the while, Raisi was making his way in the world. In his memoirs, he writes about his revolutionary activities in the years leading up to 1979. “I participated in all these demonstrations,” he remembered. “I was young and had a youthful spirit.”
It was during this time that Raisi met Khameini. In his memoirs, Raisi writes that he always knew the older man was destined for great things:
He was always a role model, but I remember two years before the revolution, when we sat down and talked to the students, they said, “Who wants to run the country if the shah leaves?” I also said that Mr. Khamenei, the imam of the Keramat Mosque, is the best person for the presidency. At that time, I was ridiculed for what I was saying. But I saw in him the power of being able to lead people.
Raisi claims he was arrested twice during this time, once in Qom and again at a train station on his way to Yazd. He still brags that the foolish soldiers didn’t spot the sermons of Khomeini he was carrying. Whatever the truth, the anecdote stands as an example of the revolutionaries’ growing power and the ever-weakening efficacy of the state’s security forces.
Certainly my grandparents knew their time was almost up. They tasked my mother with finding a house in London — which she duly did — and prepared to flee. They didn’t have to wait long. In late January 1979, Raisi joined a sit-in at the University of Tehran to protest the government’s closure of airports aimed at preventing Khomeini’s return from exile. “That whole week we awaited the arrival of the imam,” Raisi recalls. They didn’t have to wait long. On the morning of Feb. 1, 1979, Khomeini landed at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. The worm had devoured the body politic. The revolutionaries had won.
Later that day my grandfather left Iran.
If you want a revolution to succeed, it’s not enough to overthrow the old regime. You must ensure that the new one survives. In November 1979, a militant group stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took the diplomats inside hostage. Outraged, the U.S. broke off relations with Iran and slapped it with sanctions, urging others to follow suit. The Islamic Republic was vulnerable. Less than a year later, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded to start a nearly decade-long war between the two countries.
If it was a time of chaos, it was also a time of opportunity, especially for someone from the “right” family with the “right” education and a track record of revolutionary activity. Having links to one of the country’s most powerful men didn’t hurt, either. In 1980, at age 19, Raisi joined the judicial office in Karaj City, 12 miles west of Tehran. By all accounts, he did a characteristically thorough job and, in summer 1982, he became head of the prosecutor’s office for the city of Hamadan.
A coalition of nationalists, leftists and Islamists had overthrown the shah, but as the months wore on the Islamists consolidated their power and took total control. This created a class of disgruntled revolutionary groups, chief among them was the MEK, which favored action. During the 1960s and 1970s, as a violent guerrilla group, MEK carried out terror attacks in Iran that killed Americans. In 1979, its members threw themselves into the revolution alongside the Islamists.
But the alliance proved short-lived. The MEK shared much of Khomeini’s Islamism but not his beliefs on who should control Iran; and its popular support in the revolution’s aftermath was a political threat to the regime, which began to arrest and execute the Mujahideen. In response, in August 1981 the MEK retaliated by assassinating the Islamic Republic’s prime minister along with the president and six other government officials.
In the aftermath, every MEK member became a target, and it didn’t matter how junior they were or how little they had done. One of those was Goodarzi, who was 17 years old during the revolution. Her “crime” was selling MEK newspapers and participating in protests in her hometown of Kermanshah.
The police came looking for her, but she fled to Hamadan to stay with her aunt. In summer 1982, when she was almost nine months pregnant, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) – a new paramilitary force set up in May 1979 to “safeguard” the revolution – smashed down her aunt’s door and dragged Goodarzi off to the courthouse. After a swift “trial” she was taken to one of several rooms in the basement that, as everyone in Hamadan knew, were for torturing prisoners.
Almost 40 years on, she remembers it clearly. In addition to the lashing with electricity cables, the torture was often psychological. They made her listen to the cries of other prisoners being tortured. But of all her memories – alongside the birth of her son after she was tortured and his early life with her in prison – what stands out most vividly is Raisi’s chilling demeanor. “Everybody knew of him as a merciless person,” she said. “He seemed to enjoy it.” From almost the moment that Goodarzi entered solitary she faced Raisi almost daily. “He would either ask questions or instruct the other interrogators. He often spoke to me in a very vulgar manner,” she added.
It was his fanaticism that especially struck her. “In his speech, in his eyes, in every manner, you could see the vengeance that he had for all MEK members and supporters,” she recalled.
The early persecution of the MEK was perhaps the first step in the Islamic Republic’s path to pervasive state violence. The revolutionaries had taken control of Iran through street protests, not military force, and while they had purged those loyal to the shah, they had not yet targeted civilians en masse. That began to change in the prisons during the early 1980s, as even children were tortured. The revolutionaries used the SAVAK’s favored method: lashing with electric cables. Indeed, as one former dissident wryly told me, they probably used the same cables.
The Islamic Republic, feeling vulnerable, had lashed out at its own people with extreme violence, just as the shah had. And Raisi, a prince of the new republic, was already at the heart of its response.
My family was now in London. My grandmother had returned to Shemiran in the revolution’s aftermath to sell the house – at the time the regime tended not to target women – which had been taken over by the Basij, the IRGC’s paramilitary volunteer force. My grandfather stayed in London, which was probably for the best. As Tamara recalls, “He was a perfect candidate for being accused of spying for Israel and temperamentally prone to being goaded into blasphemy as defined by the mullahs.” A couple of months later, a prominent Jewish businessman called Habib Elghanian was executed, prompting an exodus of Iranian Jews.
Years moved on. Iranian dissidents gathered around our North London kitchen table. At dinner, I tried to follow the conversations of the adults around me as they discussed “mullahs” and “Saddam” and “Khomeini” – subjects unfamiliar to my young British friends. In the background our TV crackled with the sound of shelling in the seemingly never-ending Iran-Iraq war.
Each day, England ran into Iran. One afternoon I arrived home excitedly from school recounting the story that had just been taught to me in Scripture – of the arrival of the “Messiah” in Jerusalem on a donkey. Sitting at the white Terence Conran table that dominated our kitchen was a family friend, Baqer (who would go on to help found BBC Persian). “In Iran, we also waited for the Messiah,” he told me with an amused but weary smile, “but only the donkey showed up.”
Back in Iran, Raisi kept rising. In 1983, he did what almost all men of ambition do: he married well, wedding Jamileh Sadat Alam al-Huda, the eldest daughter of a famous Friday prayer imam. At work: promotion. In 1985 he became deputy prosecutor of Tehran. In June 1989, Khomeini died, and Raisi’s patron, Khamenei, succeeded him. Soon after, Raisi was appointed prosecutor of Tehran, ensuring that once more he would drive both regime policy and its most egregious acts.
But again, the state was vulnerable. In June 1988, after vowing never to stop until Iranian forces reached Baghdad, Khomeini had reluctantly accepted U.N. Resolution 598 that called for a ceasefire in the war, an act he likened to drinking a “chalice of poison.” A few days after that, MEK forces, which had moved into exile in Iraq and fought with Saddam during the war, crossed into western Iran and fought, unsuccessfully, with Iranian troops.
The MEK had also morphed into a quasi-cult devoted to its leaders, Maryam and Massoud Rajavi. This, together with their support for Iraq during the war, had made them unpopular with many Iranians. The regime saw its chance to stamp the group out. Beginning in July 1988, it ordered a series of executions of political prisoners across Iran that lasted until the end of the year. Most of those killed were MEK members or supporters, though other factions such as the Communist Tudeh Party also suffered. According to Ervand Abrahamian in “Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran,” the 1988 massacres were:
… an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history—unprecedented in form, content and intensity. It even outdid the 1979 reign of terror. The curtain of secrecy, however, was so effective that no Western journalist heard of it and no Western academic discussed it.
The death toll remains disputed. MEK supporters have repeatedly told me it was 30,000. Nasser Mohajer, author of “Voices of a Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988,” told New Lines that it was most likely closer to 5,000. Whatever the actual figure, it was five months of horror. Prisoners were loaded into forklifts and hanged from cranes every 30 minutes: organized death on an industrial scale. But of course, it needed the pretense of due process. Thus the “death committees” were born — groups of men who went into prisons across the country to deliver the sentences to the (almost always predetermined) guilty.
Authorities created a four-man commission composed of the Intelligence Ministry’s representative in Tehran’s Evin Prison, Mostafa Pourmohammadi; Deputy Chief Justice of the Iranian Supreme Court Hossein-Ali Nayyeri; Tehran Prosecutor Morteza Eshraqi; and Raisi, then Tehran’s deputy prosecutor general. One Evin prison inmate was Reza Falahi. He was arrested in September 1988 at age 21 for the “crime” of reading an MEK newspaper and sentenced to 10 years. Like most prisoners he was thrown into solitary confinement and tortured. Stage one was the beatings. “As soon as you went into the interrogation room it started,” he said. “They kicked me like a football for an hour without even asking anything.” Then came the questioning. “They really thought we knew things that torture would unlock. I saw many people, unable to walk, crawling like animals back to their cells,” he said.
On Aug. 12, Falahi appeared before the committee in the prison’s main hall. “As soon as I arrived, I saw guards organizing all stages of the process,” he said. “The first step was ‘court’; the second step was being taken into a corridor outside the courtroom; the third step was writing a will; the fourth was the writing of ‘martyr’ on the prisoner’s body; and the fifth: hanging.”
“I entered [the hall]. They told me to remove my blindfold and began asking questions. They asked if I wanted to apply for amnesty. ‘Do you believe in the government of the Islamic Republic? Are you willing to condemn your political activities — are you willing to repent?’” he recalled.
“Raisi was horrible — the worst. He called me bad names – murderer! He barked at me. ‘You killed our friends! You have no mercy on us!’ I replied that all I did was read a newspaper,” he continued. “I heard later from the other inmates that he was cruel to everyone.”
“In the end, they asked me to condemn terrorism in writing. I wrote down that I condemned all forms of terror, be it the Iranian regime or anyone else. I survived only because the people before me refused outright. The commission knew they needed to spare a few people so they could later say they had shown mercy,” he concluded.
The massacres sparked horror in the very depths of the establishment. Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor and a hawk who had previously argued for spreading the revolution internationally, was repulsed. His Aug. 15, 1988, meeting with the death panel was caught on tape. “This sort of mass executions without trials, particularly as it relates to prisoners and captives … over time will favor them and the world will condemn us and they will be even more encouraged in their armed resistance,” he raged on the audio.
And he had no doubt who was to blame: “In my opinion, the greatest crime committed during the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you. Your (names) will in the future be etched in the annals of history as criminals.” As the tape rolls on Montazeri continues to fume at the four men, insinuating that the number of people executed since the revolution now exceeded those executed by the deposed shah.
Montazeri was placed under house arrest as the regime doubled down, denying that the massacres had even taken place. But his words could not be ignored:
“We will not be in power forever,” he warned. “In the future, history will judge us.”
It took until 2005 for me to finally see Iran. Images, ideas, names and streets that had existed merely in anecdote became, finally, real. I saw North Tehran — now populated by Iran’s new royalty: the IRGC commanders and regime stalwarts — and Pahlavi (now Valiasr) Avenue and Isfahan. It wasn’t like coming home, of course, but to a place that was new yet oddly familiar.
Iran was just coming out of the eight years of comparative — and ultimately failed — reform under President Mohammad Khatami. The years of overtures to the West and more liberal dress codes were over. Everyone knew that Khatami’s successor, former Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was an ideologue close to the regime, especially the IRGC. Tehran’s intellectual classes were worried.
But if one hardliner was about to explode into global headlines, another had been amassing power for decades. Khamenei’s ascension to the role of supreme leader had given Raisi’s career its final boost. In 1994, he was made head of the General Inspection Office, giving him the anti-corruption brief, a post of national importance. Ten years later, he was named first deputy chief justice.
In 2009, Ahmadinejad won a second term in an election clearly rigged against the real winner, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Iranians took to the streets by the thousands, wearing the color of Mousavi’s campaign and igniting the so-called Green Revolution. The regime swiftly mobilized. It shot people down in the streets, and Raisi did his bit. Iranian media have claimed that he encouraged vicious treatment of the protesters.
Publicly he made his views known. “Those who deliberately participated in the sedition … should be prosecuted according to the law of the judiciary,” he thundered. As in 1988, when he lectured brutalized prisoners on their lack of mercy, Raisi railed against “the great oppression (zolm)” the protesters had apparently committed, which, he said, could “never be forgiven.”
And just as in 1988, the judiciary was expected not just to convict those actually guilty of anything but to spread terror. Rather than send tanks into the streets (and thereby avoid the later mistakes of both Hoisni Mubarak of Egypt and Bashar al-Assad of Syria), the regime preferred to use executions to send its messages. Raisi has been repeatedly forced to deny that he ordered the executions of two people not even present at the protests. “[They] were without a doubt arrested during the recent riots, and each of them [was] associated with one of the counter-revolutionary movements,” he told an audience in Qom. Once again, when the regime needed to be at its most brutal, it turned to Raisi.
There was no stopping him now. In 2014 he was appointed attorney general, a position he held until 2016, when he resigned to become chairman of the prominent charitable trust Astan Quds Razavi, a move that at first seems odd but in fact explains much about how power is configured in Iran: the political economy of Shi’ism.
Astan Quds Razavi is the “bonyad” (foundation) that manages the Imam Reza shrine at Mashhad, not least the money that millions of visitors donate yearly. Bonyads are tax-exempt, government-subsidized consortiums that receive religious donations and are answerable solely to the supreme leader. They form an almost parallel national economy. Over 100 bonyads in Iran together employ millions of people and collect revenue estimated at 20 percent of the country’s GDP. Free of government oversight, they can be used to channel money anywhere, including to Iranian proxy groups across the Middle East.
Roham Alvandi, associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics, notes that “for centuries these private endowments were a source of income that gave financial independence to those who control them. Critically, if you control those kinds of assets, you have an enormous power of patronage — and it’s all unaccountable.”
Astan Quds Razavi has managed the shrine since the 1979 revolution and is now a business empire that reportedly uses its cash to make profit and large-scale investments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The bonyad falls directly under Khamenei’s control. When he allowed Raisi to run it, he was admitting him into his innermost circle.
There was only one position left for Raisi to fill under Khamenei. In early 2017 he registered his candidacy for the presidential elections against the incumbent: the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani. The people would decide. They re-elected Rouhani with over 57 percent of the vote.
Khamenei would not make that mistake again.
“Ayatollah-e ghatl-e ām!” (the ayatollah of massacre). It’s 2021, and Raisi is now campaigning for the presidency; parts of the Iranian media and political establishment are not holding back. His actions in 1988 have dogged him for years, and he has alternated between denial and justification. A speech he gave in December 2016 at Shahid Beheshti University is typical. In that talk, he argued that he was just a prosecutor and not a judge, so the final decision was not his and that, anyway, he and others, including Khomeini, were fighting for Iran’s independence from the West and also against dissent, corruption and looting.
His hatred of the West amounted almost to a campaign pledge. “If we see the promotion of Western culture, materialism and debauchery in society, the structures of our society will collapse,” Iranian media quoted him as saying. Long regarded as a bore, albeit a murderous one in the Eichmann mold, he also tried to connect with the youth. It was a largely unsuccessful exercise, turning outright cringeworthy when he began gushing about Iranian rapper Tataloo, whose song “Energy Hasteei” (nuclear energy) contains the imperishable lines “No, I’m no math or geometry teacher … [but] I know if you’re not strong and you don’t protect your territory the close-minded could slip through.”
For his part, Khamenei was unequivocal in his support for his protégé. He coined the phrase “Hezbollah’s young government” to describe Raisi’s rise to power. On June 19, after the regime had disqualified any candidate that might reasonably mount a challenge, including Ahmadinejad, Raisi won the presidency with 61 percent of the vote. Turnout was under 50 percent. It was clear to Iranians that their government would no longer even pretend to listen to them.
As 2021 draws to a close, Iran’s hardliners seem triumphant.
In March 1975, the shah founded the Rastakhiz Party, which he had decided would be Iran’s only legal political entity. It was in effect the creation of a one-party state utterly subservient to the monarchy; it was seen as the high point of his power but also, in light of history, a dreadful mistake. Alvandi believes that Raisi’s election is the Islamic Republic’s “Rastakhiz moment.”
“The creation of the Rastakhiz party took away the pretense of any limit to the regime’s authoritarianism and the idea of any possibility of reforming it from within,” Alvandi says. “The Islamic Republic used to have this pretense of a battle between more liberal reformists and conservatives, within so-called elections, which everybody knew were not really free. But there was enough of a veneer of contested politics to keep the lid on things to some extent, and a significant portion of the population were willing to go along with it as long as they could participate, because it was better than the alternative: revolution and chaos.”
That veneer has now vanished. Raisi’s election is notable for three reasons. The first is that Khamenei and the hardliners around him have got their man in. Alvandi argues that Raisi was chosen because of his absolute loyalty and devotion to the leader and thereby the system, which he has demonstrated in the most horrific ways. The second is more important: By publicly backing Raisi, the so-called “Butcher of Tehran,” the regime has abandoned even the mirage of democracy. It no longer cares enough to even pretend.
The third reason is only grasped with a correct understanding of the threat that Raisi is most obviously a response to. Pundits see him as a rejoinder to politicians like Khatami and to a lesser extent, Rouhani, who want to open up Iran. But the truth is that neither was ever much of a threat. If the pope has no divisions, Iran’s reformers don’t even have soldiers. In Iran, hardliners go onto the streets and beat up their enemies; reformists post slogans on Facebook.
In fact, the greatest threat to the establishment is now Ahmadinejad, a populist conservative utterly different from the middle-class liberals beloved in the West. He may not wear clerical robes, but make no mistake. Ahmadinejad is a preacher and, again and again, he attacks the regime’s Achilles’ heel: corruption, economic mismanagement, and inequality. These issues can mobilize the people against the regime. And no one can accuse him of being an agent of the West.
Then there is COVID. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have died, not least because Khamenei refused to import foreign vaccines. In his attempt to get things under control, Raisi reversed the decision. The question is whether the inherent institutional — indeed constitutional — tensions between the presidency and the leader will drive a wedge between a relationship long at the heart of the Republic. If the trends of previous presidencies hold, a second term will see a more assertive Raisi. As Alvandi observes, he may become more populist as he tries to build a national base from which to succeed Khamenei as leader.
“The Islamic Revolution has, like all revolutions, become bureaucratized,” Alvandi concludes. “And it has created a new elite that needs protection, just like all established elites.” From the nobles (“ashrafiyan-ha”) to the sons of the mullahs (“aghazadeh”), from SAVAK to the IRGC, from the mansions of North Tehran to the slums of the city’s south and back north again, the Iranian state has gone full circle. And once more it has reached a peak of both autocracy and decadence.
It has been a long time since it was safe for me to go to Iran. From time to time I look at my old family photos, in the days before the world ended, and they became yet more geopolitical flotsam in a splintering world. As a Jew I was taught that we say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Recently, I have started raising a glass to the possibility of “Next year in Tehran,” a day that I know will come and that I hope will come sooner than we think.