The malevolent spirit of Ebrahim Raisi

  • Themes: Iran

For ordinary Iranians, President Ebrahim Raisi represented the banality of evil that has infected the regime since its inception. That won't stop the state from presenting him as a martyr for the Islamic Republic.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends an event in Tehran, January 2023.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends an event in Tehran, January 2023. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

Few events have crystallised the political polarisation – and moral bankruptcy – of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the sudden death of Ebrahim Raisi, president of the Islamic Republic, in a helicopter crash on 19 May. Raisi’s death, along with that of Foreign Minister Abdollahian and two other officials, shocked the political establishment as much as it elicited rejoicing among the many Iranians who have been at the sharp end of the regime’s repression.

For ordinary Iranians, Raisi represented the banality of evil that infected the regime. Notorious for his membership in 1988 of the ‘death committee’, which was entrusted with overseeing the swift despatch of around 4,000 political prisoners, Raisi was never one to cast doubt on or show remorse for his actions. If other members (there were four in total) reflected on a ‘misspent youth’, Raisi appeared to relish his role as the regime’s enforcer, even bragging, when challenged on the issue, that he was not afraid to take the tough decisions necessary to secure the regime. If loyalists saw him as the ultimate safe pair of hands, opponents decried the vulgarity – and indeed barbarity – that made a virtue out of murder.

It is worth remembering just what a scandal the extra-judicial murders have been in the Islamic Republic. Their exposure by the one-time heir to Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Montazeri, led to the latter’s dismissal and effective house arrest for the best part of 20 years. It was Montazeri’s unexpected death in late 2009 that finally sealed the fate of the Green Movement and marked the moment when serious clerical opposition to the regime came to a faltering end. His son has since released audio of his father’s berating of the committee for their actions having brought eternal shame on the revolution.

None of this appears to have affected Raisi’s convictions, whose steady rise from minor judicial official to president had all the hallmarks of a technocrat who knew which side his political bread had been buttered. This was not a man who harboured serious convictions of his own, which is what made him especially useful as a political asset.

Aside from being a Seyyed – a descendent of the Prophet, allowed to wear the black turban – Raisi’s theological credentials were slight. Much mocked for his poor education, certainly for someone who aspired to be an ayatollah, his chief abilities were as a functionary uninhibited by any moral conscience. As such, his rise through the judicial ranks was steady and he only came to public prominence in 2016, when he was appointed chair of the enormously wealthy Astan Quds foundation, which managed the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad.

This surprise appointment suddenly made him a possible candidate for the succession to Khamenei, with many conjecturing that the appointment should be seen as an important part of the preparation. It brought with it, after all, enormous powers of patronage, and it did not go unnoticed that serried ranks of senior IRGC officers came to pay their respects. His ability to take ‘tough decisions’ seemed to trump any lack of theological credentials, and Raisi was encouraged to run against Hasan Rouhani in 2017. His past, needless to say, came back to haunt him but, as noted, he turned this crime into a virtue and dismissed any criticism that came his way as the indulgence of woolly liberals. It is not an overstatement to say that fear of Raisi bolstered Rouhani’s lagging vote and ensured him a second term.

Raisi’s loss was not without purpose. He still secured a substantial vote – around 15 million, or 39 per cent, of the ballots cast – a significant achievement for a relative unknown with such a controversial past. His defeat was emphatic – Rouhani won in the first round with 58 per cent of the votes cast (around 23 million), but Raisi’s vote revealed that hardliners could count on a core constituency, whatever the merits of the candidate, of some 30 per cent of the available electorate. This was consistent with previous elections, but it did at least indicate a steady level of support and suggested that a strategy of reducing turnout would work in their favour.

Of more importance was the way Raisi’s character was being reshaped; a people’s president modelled on that of Ahmadinejad, in office from 2005 to 2013, but with the added lustre of association with one of the clerical giants of the early revolution, Ayatollah Beheshti, who had been assassinated in 1981. Few regarded this association as credible. Indeed, the more Raisi came into the public eye, the more inadequate as a politician he appeared to be – far from being a second Beheshti, his delivery was stilted (and heavily scripted) and he had a frequent inability to read an autocue. This also fuelled doubts that he was being groomed for the top job as opposed to fulfilling a supporting role for the other main contender, the supreme leader’s son, Mojtaba.

For the 2021 presidential election, key elements of this alternative strategy appeared to be falling into place. Aware of his own frailty and anxious to manage the succession in the interests of the various vested interests – principally the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) – Khamenei moved to place key allies into their institutional posts. The presidency, head of the judiciary and speaker of parliament were all positions that would have a role in the period of transition to a new leader, so all these posts had to be filled with staunch loyalists.

The election of 2021 proved the most heavily manipulated of Iran’s managed elections, resulting in the lowest turnout to date and Raisi winning a ‘landslide with 18m of the 28m cast (with an ostensible turnout of some 48 per cent, it was the lowest for a presidential election on record). The final piece of the jigsaw was secured last March with Raisi’s effectively unchallenged election to the Assembly of Experts (the constitutional body would have a role in the period of transition to the new leader) and the expectation that he would now be appointed its chairman.

These carefully laid out plans were brought to abrupt end on 19 May. As with previous disasters, the authorities have moved swiftly to sweep any awkward questions under the carpet, and launched into a concerted effort to sanctify the former president. Whatever the real shock that has been felt by allies – and the healthy crowds at the funeral suggest a solid base of support – the eulogising has taken on proportions that even some loyalist publications consider counterproductive. The crowds have been reassuringly healthy, but they were not massive, as a number of people have pointed out, and the determination of some officials to exaggerate them beyond all credibility reminds us just how good the Islamic Republic is at snatching defeat from the jaws of a modest PR victory. Moreover, as others have observed, this type of managed mourning should never disguise the performative nature of the event. There were far larger crowds for the funeral of Qasem Soleimani, but they soon dissipated, and the mood switched, with the accidental downing of the Ukrainian airliner a week later by the IRGC.

With questions left unanswered about the nature of the crash, the haphazard information management in the lead up to the announcement as well as the chaotic nature of the search – with no attempt to seal off the site – the authorities have moved with alacrity to portray Ebrahim Raisi as a modern saint, who in one account communicated with the first Shia Imam, Ali. There has been no formal attempt to lay blame for the crash elsewhere, but the absence to answer even basic questions about it has led to the emergence of conspiracy theories, including a striking one by the IRGC (currently limited to its Russian tik-tok page), which ascribes the crash – obviously – to Israel.

Meanwhile, Iranians have been treated to the spectacle of the ‘Butcher of Tehran’ being transformed into a political genius, whose presidency, contrary to general opinion, was among the most productive of any since 1979, and whose religious charisma bestows favour on anyone superstitious – or indeed desperate – enough to believe in such nonsense. Indeed, by current standards, it will be only a matter of time before manikins and effigies of Raisi grace various halls, as has been the case with Soleimani.

If the other three officials are accorded some respect, the crew of the helicopter has vanished from the narrative. The authorities have been much assisted in this project by the varieties of condolences which have emerged from other states – some even designating days of mourning – and international bodies, though even here the regime couldn’t resist making things up.

The real crime of the Islamic Republic is not so much that such superstition exists – all societies are to a greater or less extent witness to it – it is that it is encouraged as a formal strategy of the revolutionary state. It has become a hallmark of government and is it a large part of the reason why the country is in an economic mess. The irony is that most orthodox clerics eschew and reject such behaviour. It was, after all, under Ahmadinejad that such attitudes were promoted and, needless to say, Khamenei, who is anxious to provide for a charismatic succession to his son, sees considerable merit in encouraging it.

Superstition is rife among the current elite. Belief in malevolent spirits – Jinns – is widespread, and the current head of the judiciary, Mohsen Ejei, was mocked several years ago for appearing to consult an exorcist. How far many of them believe in Raisi’s remake is another matter, even if tacit acceptance serves their political interests. Certainly, anyone seeking to replace him will have to pass this particularly perverse test. Hypocrisy will be on full show as a series of aspiring candidates praise Raisi’s presidency, just as weeks ago they lambasted his incompetence. Khamenei for his part will want to find someone as ideologically pure and political pliant. Experience suggests this might be difficult. Ahmadinejad, his first attempt, went ‘off piste’, claiming charismatic authority of his own.

The crowds that adorned the funeral may convince Khamenei that he can indulge in a more competitive election assured of the right result. Some of his advisers have cautioned against such a reckless approach, but there is talk that Ali Larijani, now regarded as a pragmatist, may be allowed to run so as to boost turnout. Larijani was, humiliatingly, barred last time round, so if he stands it will be with the assurance that this time the vetting body known as the Guardian Council has had a sudden – if never explicable – change of heart.

It is not at all clear however that Larijani will manage to boost turnout or indeed have a chance of winning. Many of those disaffected by the regime see him – and his family – as embedded within the conservative (if not wholly hardline establishment), with all the corruption (moral or otherwise) that accrues with such a status. Those with longer memories will remember that it was Larijani as head of the state broadcaster who initiated the public face of the cult of Khamenei as the ‘Ali of the Age’, thus putting in train the notion of the charismatic hereditary succession.

The majority of Iranians will be watching this extraordinary passion play with a mixture of incredulity and bewilderment. The initial joy, which apparently led to a 58 per cent spike in the sale of sweets and cakes – traditionally handed out by Iranians at times of celebration (the head of the Tehran guild has since been arrested for his untimely announcement) is being replaced with despair about the state of the country and above all the nature of the governing elite. One expert boldly told an audience on state television that Iranians are not emigrating, but fleeing from a state that treats its people as if it were an army of occupation. Amnesty International has reported that 75 per cent – 853 out of 1,153 – recorded executions worldwide in 2023 were conducted in Iran (China does not provide data, but is thought to be higher in absolute terms).

Several years ago, Mohammad Javad Larijani, the sometime intellectual of the three brothers Larijani (Sadeq used to be head of the judiciary and now chairs the Expediency Council), boasted that the Islamic Republic was the first post-modern state, by which he meant that it was the first post-enlightenment state to bring religion firmly back into government. Given the evidence in front of us, one might better define the Islamic Republic as a pre-modern state. Indeed, its weakening institutional base, personality-led factionalism, chaotic economic management, and, above all, reliance on superstition, all point to this depressing conclusion.


Ali Ansari