Ebrahim Raisi: The story of an entire regime in one man

From the brutal response to challengers in the 1980s, the rise of the late Iranian president mirrors the rise of the country’s hardliners, whose grip on power remains vice-like despite his death.

Ebrahim Raisi: The story of an entire regime in one man

When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s helicopter came down in bad weather on 19 May, some hoped that a chapter of Iranian history may have gone down with him, but the story of his rise to power reveals that to be unlikely.

Raisi’s role in the campaign of executions organised by Iranian authorities in 1988 and the subsequent accusations by human rights organisations of crimes against humanity now seem like ancient history.

Yet these events help explain Iran's significant shifts since the 1979 revolution, culminating in recent years with the ruling hard-line conservative faction now consolidating its power in Tehran.

It all seems a far cry from the period immediately after the clerics first rose to power 45 years ago when Iran—then led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—was marked by severe unrest and challenges at home and abroad. What resembled a series of civil wars erupted among various factions, starting with the Kurdish forces, who had fought against the Shah. They rejected the new regime’s directives, leading to brutal battles in the north of Iran.

At the same time, a wave of executions swept across other regions ordered and overseen by the zealous former Chief Justice of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts, Sadegh Khalkhali. Known as the ‘Hanging Judge’, his name was once ubiquitous in news bulletins but has since faded into obscurity.

Mujahideen strike from Iraq

In this turbulent environment, daily clashes between regime loyalists and Mujahideen-e-Khalq militants escalated into a widespread campaign of arrests, the crackdown targeting anyone suspected of opposing Khomeini’s regime.

Raisi played a key role in the sentencing-to-death of MEK supporters. Up to 8,000 were executed, including women.

This spanned the political spectrum—from right to left. Khalkhali's relentless executions created a climate of fear as thousands of Mujahideen supporters were crammed into prisons, the most notorious being Evin in northern Tehran.

At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, in July 1988, six days after Khomeini accepted a ceasefire, 7,000 fighters from the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) launched a massive offensive from Iraq, codenamed Operation Eternal Light.

Their aim was to surprise the exhausted Iranian forces, penetrate deep into Iranian territory, and incite an uprising to overthrow Khomeini. After taking several small towns with ease, the MEK advanced on the city of Kermanshah. It was an ambush.

The Iranians, led by Lt. Gen. Ali Sayad Shirazi, had laid a trap. Knowing that the Iraqi air force would not venture that deep into Iran, Shirazi's troops parachuted in behind them, landing between the MEK convoy and the border, cutting off the convoy's supply lines and support.

Helicopters and jets then unleashed a bombing barrage on the convoy, destroying vehicles, tanks, weapons, and fighters. They then turned around and attacked the remaining Mujahideen to the north. Around 4,500 MEK combatants were killed in just a matter of days.

Raisi's 'death committee'

In the aftermath, Tehran authorities chose to execute the imprisoned MEK supporters, along with members of other leftist parties and forces. Raisi—then a 28-year-old public prosecutor—played a significant role.

Raisi's subsequent rise to power highlights how the hard-liners in Iran came to control the political system.

Although he did not implement the executions alone, he was a key member of what became known as the 'Death Committee', responsible for the execution of up to 8,000 people, including many women.

Although long forgotten, this episode paved Raisi's path to the heart of government. For years, he was thought destined for the top job. However, Mojtaba Khamenei's chance to become Supreme Leader has grown after his father's death.

The tale of the executions, Raisi's involvement, and his subsequent rise to power highlights how the hard-liners in Iran came to control the political system. Yet the regime has not only suppressed external factions such as the MEK, the Tudeh Communist Party, the leftist Fadaiyan-e-Khalq group, and the Kurdish parties. Conflicts have extended to factions closely tied to Khomeini himself.

Dissent not tolerated

Many prominent figures within these groups faced execution, either by firing squad or hanging. For his part, Mir Hussein Mousavi—a former Iranian prime minister—has been under house arrest for the past 15 years. His last big political action was to challenge the incumbent hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in elections in 2009. Due to widespread vote-rigging and election fraud, the incumbent was ruled to have won, which sparked huge protests.

Ahmadinejad was the preferred candidate of the conservative movement, who had defeated Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a regime founder considered moderate compared to Ahmadinejad, in the 2005 elections.

Raisi won the presidency because any other viable candidate was barred from running. This is certainly the case for anyone who may have ideas at odds with Iran's conservative establishment. Recent history warns us to expect more of the same.

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