On Tuesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran hosted an online discussion of Iran’s forthcoming presidential election which focused on the candidates’ records of criminal activity and human rights abuses. The presenters dedicated the majority of their attention to the leading candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, and the event was preceded by the release of a 30-page profile of the current judiciary chief which described him as a “mass murderer” and “perpetrator of genocide.”
This label refers primarily to Raisi’s role as a member of the Tehran “death commission” that carried out a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. The panel of judges was convened in response to a fatwa from the regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, which declared members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and other opponents of the theocratic system to be enemies of God and thus subject to summary execution. Across Tehran and other cities, these dissidents were interrogated and asked to demonstrate fealty to the clerical regime, and those who either refused or failed to do so were promptly sentenced to hang.
The killings were largely carried out in groups over the course of several months, and victims were taken away on refrigerator trucks to undisclosed locations and buried in mass graves. It is estimated that around 30,000 political prisoners were executed by the autumn of that year, but a full accounting of the massacre has never been completed as a result of a domestic conspiracy of silence and a lack of collective will on the part of the international community. The PMOI and the NCRI, its parent coalition, have made concerted efforts to reveal key details, including the locations of mass graves, but Tehran’s sense of impunity in this matter appears to remain intact.
This certainly is – or should be – one of the key takeaways from the current presidential campaign, which NCRI Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mohammad Mohaddessin recently referred to as a “selection process” by the unelected supreme leader, with the predetermined outcome on June 18 being the designation of Raisi, the current judiciary chief, as the successor to the outgoing President Hassan Rouhani.
Since well before candidate registration began for this race, Raisi was well-recognized as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s favored candidate. That status evidently stemmed from the perception of Raisi as possessing unwavering loyalty to the supreme leader and the system that supports his rule – loyalty that is expressed in part through his willingness to commit crimes against humanity in order to counter organized dissent that threatens the regime.
This willingness clearly persists to the present day, and Raisi’s role as judiciary head was arguably the ideal outlet for it. After spending some time presiding over Astan-e Quds Razavi, a foundation known for financing terrorism and exporting Islamic extremism, Raisi mounted a challenge to President Rouhani in 2017 but was soundly defeated by the incumbent. Khamenei appointed him as judiciary chief in 2019 as a sort of consolation prize, and late that year his commitment to political violence was put to the test by the outbreak of a nationwide anti-government uprising.
That incident, a sort of sequel to a similar uprising in January 2018, encompassed nearly 200 localities and features chants of “death to the dictator” and explicit calls for regime change. The initial response to the unrest was led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which opened fire on crowds of protesters in a number of different cities, killing 1,500. The regime’s support for this course of action was reiterated following candidate registration for the presidential race, with a former head of the hardline paramilitary being one of only six individuals approved by the Guardian Council to appear alongside Raisi on the June 18 ballot.
But Raisi himself remains the most prominent symbol of the repression that is sure to follow the election, whether his appointment is successfully completed or unexpectedly delayed. While the 1988 massacre remains his central claim to fame, Raisi is also now known for having overseen the mass arrests that followed the IRGC’s killings, as well as the ensuing months of torture that was detailed in a 2020 report by Amnesty International.
The NCRI’s press conference sought to underscore the continuity of these crimes in its event on Tuesday, featuring witness statements from those who lost loved ones or were otherwise personally affected by the 1988 massacre, the recent crackdown, and a range of other repressive activities that can be linked to one or more of the candidates in the current presidential election. Many of those statements notably reiterated the NCRI’s position that such repression is an intrinsic feature of the regime itself, and that support for any candidate in this or any other political campaign is tantamount to support for the brutal theocratic system.
With this in mind, the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, has been hard at work inside the Islamic Republic promoting a coordinated boycott of the June 18 election. That boycott campaign has gained notable traction among a wide range of activist groups and protester. Many of the statements featured in Tuesday’s press conference conveyed a clear commitment to avoiding the polls, and many unrelated protests over economic issues and other domestic affairs have come to feature slogans such as “we have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.”
The pending success of his campaign is fairly unsurprising in light of the fact that the PMOI was credited with organizing and promoting the protests that comprised the mass uprisings in January 2018 and November 2019. Furthermore, despite the brutality that brought each of those movements to heel, countless Iranians returned to the streets again in January 2020 to protest the regime’s attempted cover-up of an IRGC missile strike on a commercial airliner, and to explicitly condemn the very paramilitary hat had opened fire on their compatriots two months earlier.
In February 2020, the vast majority of the Iranian people defied fervent appeals from government officials by sitting out the country’s latest parliamentary elections, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic. Today, even Iranian officials and state media outlets are following suit with pro-democracy activists by speculating that the turnout on June 18 will be even lower, and that it will be a precursor to still greater public unrest.
In May, NCRI Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mohammad Mohaddessin specifically predicted that the “looming nationwide uprising” would be “far more intense and widespread than in recent years.” The regime’s effort to elevate human rights abusers in the current election can be seen both as a response to its fear of that outcome and as a contributor to the likelihood that Mohaddessin’s prediction will come true.
When Raisi begins setting policy for the entire country, he will no doubt prioritize crackdowns on any and all dissent that might contribute in any way to the growth of unrest. But at the same time, the Iranian people know that this is all they can expect from the current judiciary chief, and indeed from the regime itself. The NCRI press conference and surrounding activism strongly suggest that those people are preparing to confront the regime’s repression head-on, and the opposition coalition will no doubt present that situation to the international community along with advice on how Western policymakers can help, when it holds the annual World Summit on a Free Iran in July.