The Islamic Republic of Iran is a monstrous tyranny that likes to pretend it’s a democracy. And so in a vote with historically low turnout — and all candidates pre-vetted by the unelected Guardian Council, of course — Ebrahim Raisi was “elected” president. He will be inaugurated in August.
His rise is bad news for all Iranians, especially members of religious minorities.
Raisi is the hard-line prodigy of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is tipped as a potential successor to the role of Top Tyrant. Raisi, who leaves the position of chief of the judiciary to take up the presidency, was one of four judges in the late 1980s to sit on the “Death Panel.” It was as horrific as it sounds, ordering the execution of thousands of regime opponents (and suspected opponents).
More recently, in his role as head of the judiciary, Raisi amplified the pursuit of minority faith groups in Iran, not least the Baha’is.
The Baha’i faith, which emphasizes the unity of all faiths and all humanity, couldn’t be considered threatening through any reasonable lens. It is peaceful, anti-racist and anti-nationalistic. Yet perhaps it’s precisely that geniality that raises the ire of Raisi and his spiteful Islamist worldview.
Under Raisi’s directives, Iranian authorities amped up their campaign against the Baha’is. Between 50 and 100 Baha’is are in prison because of their religious identity. There has been widespread confiscation or destruction of Baha’i property in the picturesque village of Ivel, with the promise of mercy for those who renounce their beliefs and convert to Shiite Islam.
Baha’is, who aren’t permitted the basic rights of other Iranian citizens, were recently instructed by the regime that they must bury their dead in the mass graves of those aforementioned political prisoners executed in 1988, rather than being allowed the dignity of their own cemeteries.
Raisi’s victims are piling up, literally. Amnesty International says the purpose of this cruelty inflicted on the families of his victims from the ’80s and the Baha’is is to erase the evidence of his historical crimes.
Christians likewise have faced severe persecution. Again, several Christians are in prison because of their religious identity, though usually they’re indicted on bogus national-security charges. Prisoners of conscience can now expect long sentences to be followed by years of exile in remote parts of the country, away from their families.
In October 2020, 120 lawyers and activists wrote an open letter to Raisi, asking him to overturn a court’s decision to remove a 2-year-old girl from her adoptive parents, Sam Khosravi and Maryam Falahi, because they are Christian converts. The judge who made that ruling acknowledged that the child, Lydia, felt an “intense emotional attachment” to Sam and Maryam; Raisi ignored the petition.
In the face of this mountain of evidence, it takes some remarkable audacity and an extraordinarily relaxed relationship with reality for Raisi to claim, as he did in an interview shortly after his election, that he is a “human-rights defender.” It would be funny if it weren’t so revoltingly offensive.
As predictable as the sun rising in the morning, there will be some well-intentioned but wildly naïve world leaders who believe doggedly that with a bit of dialogue and understanding, Tehran can be persuaded to be a benign force in the region and even a reliable strategic ally.
They may be disappointed to hear that when asked if he would meet with President Joe Biden, Raisi simply replied, “No.” Still, while the outlook for Iran and its beleaguered population is bleak, many activists express the hope that with every retrograde gallop away from democracy and human rights, the regime is taking a step toward its own extinction. In the event, the vast majority of ordinary Iranians had their fill of the Islamic Republic a long time ago.
Miles Windsor is senior manager for strategy and campaigns for the Religious Freedom Institute’s Middle East action team