At first glance, Ebrahim Raisi does not inspire dread. With glasses, an average build, and a gray, kempt beard, he looks unassuming, just another face in the crowd—save for his black turban. And when the conservative Shi'ite cleric speaks, he is not particularly charismatic. How dangerous can he be? It turns out very dangerous for the Iranian people. Raisi is set to become chief of Iran's powerful judiciary this week, giving him immense influence over the Islamic Republic's brutal system of oppression. That is likely just another stop on his way to becoming the most powerful man in the country. Soon enough, those who do not know Raisi's name may become all too familiar with it.
The spokesperson for the judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, told Iranian media on Sunday that Raisi, 58, will replace Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani as head of the judicial system. Meanwhile. Yahya Kamalipour, a member of the Iranian Parliament's judiciary committee, said the change would take effect later this week.
The supreme leader of Iran directly appoints the head of the judiciary to a five-year term, which can be renewed.
Raisi worked his way up through the judiciary after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, holding a number of senior positions. Most notoriously, he served as deputy prosecutor of Tehran from 1985 to 1988, when he played a prominent role in the execution of thousands of political prisoners. In the summer of 1988, then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the secret executions, and Raisi was part of a "death committee" that carried several out, overseeing many of the killings.
Raisi's complicity in abusing human rights goes well beyond 1988. As a cog in the wicked machinery of Iran's "deep state"—a network of security, intelligence, and economic personnel and institutions loyal to the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his ideological vision of the Islamic Republic—Raisi is attached to the regime's cruelty and oppression. In 2014, for example, as attorney general, he delayed an investigation into several acid attacks against women in the city of Isfahan, rather than seek swift justice.
It is morally abhorrent to put such a man in charge of a country's judiciary system, yet that is precisely what Khamenei did. What is worse is that the international community has not let out a peep in protest. The silence from the United Nations and the world's democracies has been telling: no one seems willing to hold Raisi accountable for his past atrocities. If verbal condemnation is too much, then what does that make the prospect of imposing sanctions against him?
Yet the United States should impose sanctions against Raisi, especially after his latest appointment. And it should not just be for his abysmal record on human rights. In 2016, Khamenei appointed Raisi custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, the Muslim world's largest charitable foundation, which manages the Imam Reza Shrine and a vast amount of property in the city of Mashhad. The organization, a massive business conglomerate, has billions of dollars in assets, serving effectively as a slush fund for the regime. As Tzvi Kahn, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has argued, the Trump administration must sanction Astan Quds Razavi and Raisi, who as its custodian built his own network of patronage.
As influential as judiciary chief and custodian of Astan Quds Razavi are, they might not be the limits of Raisi's power. In fact, the hardline cleric will likely replace Khamenei as the next supreme leader.
In recent years, experts have named Raisi as one of a few candidates in the running to succeed Khamenei. He was considered the odds-on favorite until 2017, when Raisi ran for president but lost by a wide margin to incumbent Hassan Rouhani. Some observers said the resounding loss killed Raisi's prospects. But now that time has alleviated the sting, the memory of the loss seems to have faded, as evidenced by Raisi's new appointment as judiciary chief. It is no coincidence that Raisi will be replacing Larijani, the other figure who experts consider a leading candidate to become the next supreme leader. Raisi's appointment will put him on the same level of judicial experience as Larijani, except Raisi has the added benefit of the financial and political influence he gained by running Astan Quds Razavi.
Most importantly, Raisi is a loyal follower and ally of Khamenei. The two first met at the time of the 1979 revolution, when Raisi was a young seminarian in the holy city of Qom. Khamenei was one of his teachers. Raisi had no exemplary skills, but he was a loyal soldier who served Iran's revolution. Over the years, Raisi became Khamenei's apprentice of sorts. Indeed, Khamenei seems to be grooming Raisi to replace him.
The one problem for Raisi is his lackluster religious resume. He is not a high-ranking cleric and has not demonstrated a deep knowledge of theological issues. Larijani, meanwhile, has great clerical credentials (and also enjoys good relations with Khamenei). But Khamenei himself did not have a strong religious resume when he became supreme leader in 1989, and, critically, Raisi has stronger ties to the deep state than Larijani. While the Assembly of Experts, of which both Raisi and Larijani are members, officially chooses Iran's next supreme leader, other power centers in the regime—especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—will play major roles in the process. Raisi enjoys closer relations with many of these entities.
It should also be noted that Larijani has previously been accused of corruption, although the allegations were later debunked. Still, the hit on Larijani's reputation could be enough to hurt his chances.
With Raisi's latest appointment, Khamenei is laying the groundwork to ensure that his hardline vision of the Islamic Republic, one that is virulently anti-Western and anti-Semitic, lives on after he dies. Khamenei is 79 and, according to reports, not in great health. He could very well die in the next few years. He wants his successor to rule over an Iran that remains a brutal Islamist theocracy, not one that engages with the West. With Raisi waiting to assume ultimate power (and with Larijani also in contention), Khamenei is planning for Iranian leaders to be chanting "death to America" for years to come.