There were never such many questions about the type of administration that Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, would oversee. But the picture became clearer recently when Raisi submitted to the Iranian parliament his list of names for prospective government ministers and heads of executive organizations. The list is a roster of some of the regime’s most hardline figures, many of whom have been implicated in human rights abuses, foreign terrorism, and schemes to enrich themselves through the coordinated theft of national wealth.
Ahmad Vahidi, whom Raisi has chosen to head the Interior Ministry, is the subject of an Interpol warrant stemming from his involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. At the time, Vahidi was commander of the Quds Force, the foreign special operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, making him the top terrorist operative in the Islamic Republic and signaling that he is likely responsible for hundreds of other deaths but has never been held accountable for any of them.
That lack of accountability is a pervasive problem, which has been brought into sharper focus than ever before by Raisi’s June 18 “election.” That election was orchestrated in large part by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who appointed Raisi as head of the judiciary in 2019, apparently intending it to serve as a stepping stone direct to the presidency. With backing from the supreme leader, Raisi became the only viable candidate for the nation’s second-highest office. All other high-profile figures were excluded from the ballot by the Guardian Council, which is tasked with vetting prospective candidates to any high office in order to confirm their alignment with the regime’s Islamist ideology and more specifically with the will of the supreme leader.
By definition, anyone capable of mounting a serious challenge to Khamenei’s chosen candidate was at odds with his will. Two of the minor hardline figures who were cleared by the Guardian Council later dropped out of the race in order to throw their support behind Raisi. Rather than voting for another candidate that would not be allowed to take office and would not even promote substantially different policies, the vast majority of the Iranian people sat out the presidential election. The country’s leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, explicitly promoted the electoral boycott as a means to “vote for regime change.” The PMOI’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, later reported that less than ten percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Ironically, this coordinated rejection of Raisi’s candidacy underscored the sentiment that lay behind it, namely the regime’s single-minded focus on violent repression as the only means of dealing with the recent proliferation of dissent. The PMOI’s efforts to promote an electoral boycott came after its successful leadership of two nationwide uprisings, one in January 2018 and another in November 2019. Both of these served to popularize stark anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator,” making it clear once and for all that the theocratic system enjoyed none of its claimed popular support.
Though both uprisings had tremendous symbolic importance, both were also driven back underground by repressive authorities. The regime’s response to the second uprising was particularly brutal, and Raisi’s command over the judiciary was a key reason why. About 1,500 peaceful protesters were killed in mass shooting incidents within days of the uprising breaking out, and at least 12,000 known and suspected activists were arrested soon afterward. Many of those were then subjected to months of torture in various Iranian detention facilities as the judiciary sought to secure false confessions and set the stage for aggressive prosecution, including prosecution on capital charges.
By all accounts, Raisi’s role in the crackdown served to reinforce Khamenei’s support for him. Indeed, the supreme leader must have chosen Raisi for the role on the understanding that it would lead to mass civilian deaths in the face of popular unrest. After all, the current president’s primary claim to fame remains his involvement in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, which claimed an estimated 30,000 lives in the wake of a fatwa declaring that all organized dissent against the ruling system was an instance of “enmity against God.”
While there are many current Iranian officials, like Ahmad Vahidi, who have evaded accountability for acts of terrorism, absolutely every official involved in the 1988 massacre has evaded accountability for 33 years and counting. This situation has reinforced a sense of impunity in all things, which was exhibited for all the world to see when Khamenei chose Raisi as the county’s next president, then again when Raisi chose Vahidi and a number of other IRGC affiliates to assist him in leading the executive branch.
Many critics of the Iranian regime were quick to highlight the impunity that underlay Raisi’s “election,” and many of them also highlighted the role that conciliatory Western dealings with the Islamic Republic have had in reinforcing that impunity. Conciliation has certainly been the order of the day while the European Union has been working feverishly to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, complete with the suspension of most economic sanctions currently targeting the regime. Even though Raisi seemed to reject the prospect of further talks before officially taking office, the EU sent a delegation to Tehran for his inauguration, in an effort to promote cordial relations.
This had the unfortunate effect of legitimizing a president whom the Iranian people have plainly rejected. It also signaled to regime authorities that the EU was no more likely to demand accountability for incidents like the 1988 massacre even after one of its main perpetrators became the nominal head of Iran’s government. One has to wonder whether the EU’s conciliatory posture helped Raisi to feel more comfortable in appointing cabinet members who previously committed their own human rights abuses and terrorist acts and crimes against humanity.
If so, the EU bears some responsibility for whatever results from those appointments, and there can be little doubt that the effects will include repetition of the sorts of malign activities that defined those appointees’ careers. Raisi himself has already compounded the legacy of his role in the 1988 massacre by overseeing the November 2019 crackdown. He is now poised to do the same thing on an even broader scale in the face of the next wave of popular unrest.
If the Iranian Resistance is to be believed, that next wave is inevitable. In fact, it may already be underway. There have been countless instances of large-scale protest dating back to the very day after Raisi’s “election.” Over the weeks, these have grown both in scale and in intensity. Though some of the latest examples were sparked by specific issues like blackouts and water shortages, they also reportedly featured a resurgence of anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator” and “we do not want the Islamic Republic.” In light of all that the Iranian people have suffered at the hands of the IRGC, which is very well represented in Raisi’s prospective cabinet, that sentiment is sure to continue growing as the Iranian parliament moves toward its rubber-stamp approval of Raisi’s picks.