Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian regime’s new president was inaugurated last Thursday. The following day, as one of his first official actions in office, Raisi held meetings with representatives of several of the regime’s militant proxies from across the region. His guests on that day included Sheikh Naeem Qasim, the deputy secretary head of Hezbollah, Faleh al-Fayadh, the head of the network of Iraqi militants known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and officials from both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. Two days earlier, and just prior to the official inauguration, Raisi also met with Mohammad Abdul Salam, a special envoy from Yemen where Iran has been backing the Houthis in the years-long civil war that saw them depose the country’s internationally recognized president.
Raisi’s early efforts to prioritize regional militancy and terrorism underscore the widespread expectation that his administration will oversee a general escalation in the regime’s malign activities, spanning both domestic and foreign policy. The former was a more obvious expectation in light of the fact that Raisi’s legacy has long been defined by contributions to domestic political repression. In the summer of 1988, he played a key role in the execution of over 30,000 political prisoners, as one of four members of a “death commission” that was formed in Tehran in response to a fatwa regarding political dissidents, from the regime’s founder and first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini.
That legacy was revived in recent years as new information about the massacre came to light in the form of an audio recording from the time of the killings, created by the only clerical official to object to them, Hossein Ali Montazeri. This prompted a number of the regime officials, including Raisi, to publicly defend their role in the massacre, often referring to the death sentences, many of which were handed down in less than two minutes, as “God’s command.” This sentiment clearly underlay the regime’s approach to cracking down on dissent from December 2017 onward, as the regime was rocked by two nationwide uprisings and a series of other large-scale protests.
Within days of the second uprising breaking out across nearly 200 localities in November 2019, regime authorities fatally shot approximately 1,500 people. At that time, Ebrahim Raisi was serving as head of the judiciary, and in that capacity he directly oversaw the policy of mass arrests and systematic torture that followed the killings and continued for several months. The incident went a long way toward demonstrating to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Raisi was still as committed as ever to the brutal suppression of dissent. Consequently, Khamenei put forward Raisi’s name for the next sham presidential election, and through his Guardian Council excluded all other viable candidates and clear the path for his appointment.
As important as was Raisi’s background as a jurist and hanging judge, it is unlikely that Khamenei would have endorsed him so enthusiastically if he not similarly proven himself in areas of hardline foreign policy. That he did while occupying another position to which he had been appointed by Khamenei in the years prior to his stint as judiciary chief. As the caretaker of a so-called religious foundation called Astan-e Quds Rezavi, Raisi actually served as financier of global terrorism, directing foundation’s vast financial resources toward a variety of supposed religious and cultural projects that formed the foundations for militant recruitment.
Raisi actually facilitated an expansion in AQR’s relationship with key terrorist institutions while he was caretaker. In early 2018, Raisi traveled to Lebanon to heap praise on its officials. In July of that year, he played host to Qassem Soleimani, then-commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign special operations division, the Quds Force. After Soleimani was killed in a January 2020 US drone strike, Raisi stood directly alongside Khamenei at the memorial service, cementing his image as someone with extensive ties to the elite power structure, and a likely successor to Khamenei.
Raisi’s stewardship of AQR spanned a period of particularly bold Iranian terrorist activity reaching beyond the Middle East region and into Europe. His meeting with Soleimani coincided closely with a thwarted bomb plot that could have been the worst Iranian attack on Western soil. Four Iranian operatives including a high-ranking diplomat-terrorist were sentenced to prison in Belgium early this year in connection with that plot, which targeted an international rally near Paris organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
It is conceivably a coincidence that this plot happened to emerge at the same time Raisi was playing a lead role in the regime’s recruitment and terrorist financing infrastructure. It is also conceivably a coincidence that Tehran’s first fatal attack on a commercial vessel in the Gulf of Oman, the Mercer Street, took place just days before he was inaugurated as the regime’s president. But if the international community were to downplay these coincidences, it would do so at its peril.
There is every reason to believe that the regime’s domestic violence and export of terrorism would increase, especially given that it has been struggling for several years to overcome serious domestic challenges and compensate for growing international pressure and isolation. The protest that was on prominent display in January 2018 and November 2019 paused in 2020 as Iran was gripped by some of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world. But early this year, NCRI’s President-elect, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, pointed to new protests as evidence that “the fire of the uprisings has risen from the ashes of the coronavirus.”
For the past several weeks, unrest in Iran has been more-or-less incessant, following upon a boycott of Raisi’s purely ceremonial June 18 election. That boycott as a means to vote for regime change, and even according to Tehran’s official reports, the majority of the population declined to cast ballots. The unrest shows little sign of abating, but many experts are now anticipating that with the former judiciary chief at the head of the executive branch, crackdowns are going to become more severe than ever.
The experience of 2018, which saw Iranian terror and espionage plots foiled in Albania, the Netherlands, and the US as well as France, shows that for the regime, domestic crackdowns may spawn parallel efforts to silence dissent beyond the country’s borders. Raisi’s obsession with stamping out Iran’s democratic Resistance is well-known. Understood in that context, his decision to meet with terrorist proxies on his first full day in office could point to his plans for expanding that effort as president.
This is something that the international community must be aware of, and must keep a close eye on as Raisi settles into that office. The world should react by holding Raisi and the entire regime accountable for human rights violations inside Iran and export of terrorism abroad.