Several Western policymakers, human rights advocates, and experts on Iranian affairs have reacted with suitable alarm to last month’s confirmation that Ebrahim Raisi would be the next president of the Iranian regime. Many of them reaffirmed that sentiment alongside a wide range of Iranian expatriates and pro-democracy activists at this weekend’s Free Iran World Summit.
The event highlighted both the socio-political developments underlying Raisi’s “election” and the likely consequences of him taking over the presidency in August. Many of the participants reiterated calls for a change of Western policy, both with respect to the Iranian regime as a whole and with respect to Ebrahim Raisi in particular. Both before and after Raisi was confirmed as president-select on June 18, those appeals frequently emphasized the need for sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and international investigations to hold the regime’s new second-in-command accountable for past crimes.
“As far as the international community is concerned, this is a test of whether it will engage and deal with this genocidal regime or whether it will stand with the Iranian people.” Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the Iranian resistance, said, adding, “We say to the world community, especially to Western governments, that Mullah Raisi is a criminal guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity in 1988.”
In 1988, Raisi served as one of the key figures in the “death commissions” that oversaw a massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners. Beginning in 2019, as head of the judiciary, he oversaw perhaps the worst crackdown on dissent in recent years. Prior to taking on that role, Raisi served as head of the so-called religious foundation, Astan-e Quds Razavi, which has a long history of financing terrorism and fomenting Islamic extremism throughout the world.
In view of this background, Amnesty International reacted to Raisi’s election by issuing a statement the very next day which called it a “grim reminder that impunity reigns in Iran,” and suggested that instead of being elevated to the presidency, he should have been “investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance, and torture.” The statement was backed up by the human rights advocacy group’s own 2020 report into the regime’s response to a nationwide uprising in November 2019, which included the torture of thousands of arrestees over a period of months.
This systematic torture emerged in the wake of 1,500 peaceful protesters being fatally shot, most of them by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It seems reasonable to conclude that Raisi and other leading officials felt empowered to continue violent reprisals past that point after it became clear that the international community had no intention of intervening in any meaningful way. This conclusion was reinforced by the lack of action by Western powers and the international community with regard to the 1988 massacre.
Last year, seven United Nations human rights experts published a letter in which they acknowledged that the General Assembly had been made aware of those killings while they were ongoing but did not follow up on the case or refer it to the Security Council or the Human Rights Council. “The failure of these bodies to act had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran,” they said, adding that it also emboldened the regime to continue covering up aspects of its human rights record.
Raisi’s promotion first to judiciary chief and then to president underscores the fact that the regime has actually gone well past mere deflection and denial with respect to its past abuses and crimes against humanity. Iranian officials have openly defended and justified their own roles and their colleagues’ roles in incidents like the 1988 massacre, with Raisi himself saying that the fatwa behind it was unquestionable and that Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Iranian regime, was absolutely correct to insist upon “no mercy” in dealing with organized opposition the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Since long before Raisi’s promotion was confirmed, the NCRI predicted that it would be a sign of the regime’s desperate obsession with restoring order in the wake of the November 2019 uprising and other such expressions of anti-government sentiment. Raisi’s background made him a prime candidate to oversee a general escalation in the repression of dissent, targeting both domestic protests and the global support network created by the NCRI coalition. But that coalition’s Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Mohammad Mohaddessin, said in a May press conference that the regime might find itself confronting even greater opposition from a population that knows well what to expect.
Mohaddessin said that the clearest early evidence of looming popular unrest would come in the form of an effective boycott of the electoral process that was manipulated in advance to secure Raisi’s decisive victory. Footage of empty polling places throughout the country on June 18 supports the NCRI’s conclusion that less than one in ten Iranian voters took part in that process.
On the one hand, this is sure to give regime authorities a renewed sense of urgency regarding their plans to crackdown on dissent. But on the other hand, it demonstrates that the Iranian people have not been beaten into submission even after hundreds of recent deaths and thousands of instances of torture and false imprisonment. This, in turn, speaks to the remarkable impact that Western powers and the international community could have on Iran’s immediate future.
The first things the international community can do is launch a formal investigation into the 1988 massacre of political prisoners and to focus that investigation on figures who remain active in the Iranian regime and might yet be brought up on charges at the International Criminal Court for murdering 30,000 political activists and terrorizing an entire population in the aftermath.