Raisi inaugurated with blood on his hands – Jane Green

The recent inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi as the new President of the Islamic Republic of Iran raises questions about activity in the new President’s past, as well the directionof Iran’s future foreign policy.  Jane Green assesses the prospects.

A degree of tension between the elected President of Iran and the country’s Supreme Leader, currently Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, has been built into the system ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic forty years ago.  That tension has focussed around the degree of emphasis in Iranian foreign policy upon engagement with the United States and to a lesser extent the European Union.

The Western press have tended to simplify this tension as one between conservative hardliners and reformists within the Iranian political system, seeing hope in the presidencies of Khatami (1997 – 2005) and Rouhani (2013 -2021), while despairing at the two terms of Ahmadinejad (2005 – 2013).

The reality has been one of nuance however as the reins of power within the Islamic Republic remain firmly in the hands of the clergy, backed by the power of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).The election of Raisi as President indicates a determination on the part of the Iranian clergy to consolidate its grip on both arms of the Iranian state as he is widely seen as a likely successor to the ailing Khamenei.

In the recent presidential election the degree of manipulation by the Guardian Council, which vets all potential candidates, reached new heights.  The seven candidates selected to run were all deemed ‘safe’ and Raisi not only had the clearest name recognition but the tacit backing of the Iranian establishment. Before the polling day three of the candidates had withdrawn from the polls in favour of Raisi!

While a turnout lower than 50% makes any claim Raisi could have of a decisive mandate open to question, from the point of view of the theocratic regime in Iran this is a minor detail.  The important outcome is that a safe pair of hands has been engineered into position and policy can be developed on the basis of a clearer hardline alignment of forces.

It should not be forgotten that Raisi came to prominence in 1988 when he was the architect behind the massacres of thousands of socialists and communists.  At the time, Raisi was a 28-year-old prosecutor. What came to be known as the Death Committee was set up on the orders of the Supreme Leader with the aim of executing any political prisoner who would not renounce their political beliefs.

As a member of the Death Committee, Raisi was instrumental in planning and organising the massacre in double quick time. The executions have long been considered an indication of Raisi’s brutality and loyalty to the system.

The 5,000 prisoners executed were completing their prison terms.  Many had finished their sentences and were due to be released. However, as the end of the Iran-Iraq war approached, the regime decided that a purge of political prisoners was essential to its survival.To suggest that the new Iranian president comes into office with blood on his hands is an understatement.

This history, which is well known, does raise the question as to why the European Union saw fit to send Deputy Secretary General, Enrique Mora, to Raisi’s inauguration.  While the EU will no doubt argue that the interests of diplomacy would not be served by boycotting the event, sending such a prominent official could be construed as tantamount to endorsement of Raisi.

In his inauguration address Raisi claimed that he would pursue “diplomacy and constructive and extensive engagement with the world”, stating that boosting relations with regional neighbours would be at the top of his foreign policy. This is a strange claim from someone who could face arrest and prosecution in any European capital.

Raisi went on to say that US sanctions, imposed in 2018 after then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, must be lifted, adding,

“We will support any diplomatic plans that will achieve this goal,” indicating he will continue negotiations in Vienna aimed at restoring the accord.

Raisi promised that Iran’s nuclear programme is strictly peaceful and nuclear weapons “have no place in the country’s defence strategy”.  Without a trace of irony or remorse Raisi also claimed that he would be a “true defender of human rights”, not just in Iran but across the region.

In addition to the human rights atrocities at the door of Raisi in 1988 he also played a key role in suppressing activists who were part of the Green Movement protests, which swept Iran in 2009. Raisi ensured jail terms for a number of activists involved in the protests.As the first deputy of the judiciary, Raisi was to the forefront in a campaign which included the arrest, torture and execution of protestors.

As chief of the Iranian judiciary since 2019 Raisi has presided over the continued mistreatment of political prisoners including forced confessions, prolonged solitary confinement, the denial of medical treatment and unlawful transfer of prisoners to prisons far from their families, effectively denying visiting rights.

In foreign policy terms Raisi is already embroiled in controversy over a recent drone attack on a merchant vessel in the Persian Gulf.  The Mercer Street, a merchant vessel linked to an Israeli billionaire, was hit off the coast of Oman killing a British national and a Romanian.  Foreign ministers of G7 countries on Friday condemned Iran for the attack .

Iran has denied any involvement in the attack and no one has claimed responsibility.  Based upon the previous use of similar so-called “suicide” drones in attacks around the region, the Israeli government has issued a call to the United Nations Security Council to take action against Iran.

While there is a high degree of irony in the Israelis calling upon the UN to act, when Israel flagrantly ignores UN resolutions relating to the position of Palestinians, the Persian Gulf has seen a rise in attacks on commercial vessels in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.  Ominously the Israelis have pledged that,

“Israel will maintain the right to act independently in the face of any attack or threat to its citizens and sovereignty.”

This is more or less code for the Israelis asserting their right to take any action they deem necessary, whatever the view of the UN.  There is no doubt that the Iranian reaction under Raisi will be equally trenchant, raising the stakes in what has long been a potential conflict point in the Middle East.

Once again the Iranian people, long suffering under the theocratic dictatorship in Iran, are caught in the crossfire.  The United States will seek to exploit Iran’s weakened economic state in negotiations around the nuclear deal.  The Persian Gulf incidents could result in further international isolation from the West and accelerate the already growing trade between Iran, China and Russia, a geo-political link the West would be keen to break. 

Continued strike action and protests inside Iran indicate ongoing dissatisfaction with the regime.  Further pressure upon the economy may see these escalate and the crisis of confidence deepen.  The protests suggest that there is hope yet that the people of Iran may have the final say in the direction of their country, free from the Islamic clergy and free from external interference.  They continue to deserve our solidarity to make such an option possible.

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