The election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iranian president does not mark a return to darker days but a more brazen declaration of the character – and terrible crimes – of this theocratic state
This Slow View contains descriptions of torture, self-harm and execution.
In the summer of 1988, the already brutal Iranian prison system got much worse. Nasrin Parvaz, a 63-year-old exile, who spoke to me from her home in north London, would know. She was there. “There was terror in the air,” she explains. “We had to form a team to stop people committing suicide.”
The Islamic Republic, Iran’s theocratic modern state, was less than a decade old when it slaughtered thousands of political prisoners, an act described by a former UN judge as the worst crime against humanity since the concentration camps of the Second World War.
A tribunal’s verdict on the killings was unambiguous: “The evidence speaks for itself. It constitutes overwhelming proof that systemic and systematic abuses of human rights were committed by and on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
A 28-year-old man called Ebrahim Raisi was thought to be the youngest member of the Tehran death committee which directed the execution of thousands of people. A survivor of the massacre told me that Raisi’s preferred method of execution was hanging because “he believed that by hanging the prisoners they would suffer more”.
On Friday, Ebrahim Raisi became Iran’s president-elect. He called his election victory “a great epic of the rising nation that opened a new page of contemporary history”. This is hyperbolic, to say the least, given he won with the lowest turnout in the history of modern Iran. All but seven of the nearly 600 candidates were banned from challenging him. In the days before the vote, an elderly woman told NPR: “Fuck those mullahs… I’m voting with my cock.” An epic has never sounded so vulgar.
The election took place in a country ravaged by coronavirus, steeped in corruption, and desperate for change. But there is no “new page”, to revert to Raisi’s language; he is a mere acolyte of Ayatollah Khamenei, the 82-year-old Supreme Leader who really runs Iran.
Raisi was, if countless human rights groups are to be believed, involved in a massacre, and certainly appears to be much more “hardline” than his predecessor Hassan Rouhani – in as much as such distinctions are ever real. He is also likely to present a challenge to the US president, Joe Biden, who has promised to reclaim America’s moral authority on the global stage.
Just don’t buy the line that the theocrats’ explicit capture of the presidency is a return to darker days. It’s simply the mask being ripped off – because Iran has been languishing in dark days for a while now.
In July 1988, the Islamic Republic’s principal opposition, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or the MEK, attacked a province in western Iran, in the last major military operation of the Iran-Iraq War. Ayatollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, responded by issuing a secret order for members of the MEK and other leftists in Iranian jails to be executed en masse.
That incursion into western Iran, however, appears to have been a pretext. In a leaked audio recording released in 2016, Hossein Ali Montazeri, a one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, is heard describing the massacre as having been “under consideration for several years”.
Amnesty International points out that the executions involved many victims who had been arrested for non-violent activity. “Most of the executions were of political prisoners, including an unknown number of prisoners of conscience, who had already served a number of years in prison,” Amnesty’s report reads. “They could have played no part in the armed incursion, and they were in no position to take part in spying or terrorist activities.”
From the vantage point of Evin Prison, a concrete behemoth built among the sycamore trees in the north of Tehran, mercy was shown neither to the living nor the dead. “Some prisoners began to sleep all day,” Nasrin Parvaz, a former prisoner who was in Evin during the massacre, tells me. “It was a form of depression, as if something inside them wanted to protect them.”
Other prisoners sought more permanent escape. Parvaz was part of a 24-hour team which watched a young woman called Mahin – who eventually managed to slash her wrists in the shower. “She screamed,” recalls Parvaz. “I still remember. And I knew what that scream meant.” Mahin was holding the shower with both hands, and the water was bloody. She had to be taken to the prison clinic away from the watchful eye of prisoners. A few days later she did indeed take her own life.
That’s not to say that death marked the end of indignity. The inmates of Evin were told about a mass grave outside Tehran where executed prisoners were buried. “Some of the mothers had gone to search for the bodies of their sons,” Parvaz recounts. “They found them badly buried with arms and legs sticking out.” The mothers tried to rebury their sons, only to be attacked and dragged away by state apparatchiks. The Islamic Republic reportedly asked families to pay for the bullets that killed their loved ones.
When I investigated the long, sordid history of Evin Prison last year, I was taken aback by the Islamic Republic’s paranoia, unpredictability, and brutality. And I was appalled at the way in which these three characteristics manifested themselves – in torture, rape, starvation, mock execution, mass execution, removal of burial rites, the stripping of basic human dignity.
All this depravity, not just in Evin but across the Iranian prison system, came to a head in that summer of 1988. Amnesty International estimates that more than 4,500 people were killed. The MEK believes the total exceeded 30,000. Whatever the true number, massacres needs architects – and Ebrahim Raisi had the perfect CV.
Raisi was only 18 when the revolution of 1979 established the Islamic Republic, but he soon rose through the new state hierarchy. He was appointed as the prosecutor of Karaj, then Hamedan, and then in 1985 as deputy prosecutor in Tehran.
In the early years of the Islamic Republic, Raisi developed quite the reputation. Farideh Goudarzi, now living in exile, was arrested in 1983. As she talks she shows me pictures of her husband (arrested two days before her) and her brother (arrested hours after her).
Her husband was tortured until he lost his mind. A year after his arrest he was executed, hanged from a construction crane, as Raisi reportedly watched on. Her brother was a schoolteacher sentenced to 20 years in prison by Raisi. He never completed his term. He was executed in 1988, his blood-drenched clothing returned to his mother.
The third picture Goudarzi shows me is of her son, with whom she was nine months pregnant at the time of her arrest. When she was arrested Goudarzi was taken to a basement beneath a courtroom in Hamedan. “There was a bed in the centre of the room,” she tells me. “There were electrical cables of different sizes on the side, and a lot of blood that had been spilt under the bed. I was put onto the bed, and the interrogators slapped me in the face and used the cables to lash my hands. There were about seven or eight interrogators. There was a young man monitoring the flogging of a pregnant woman. Later on I discovered that person was Ebrahim Raisi.”
Goudarzi gave birth to her child in solitary confinement – which gave her tormentors yet another means with which to torment her. “The interrogators would use my son to torture me,” she explains. When her son was just 38 days old, her cell was raided by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s dominant military force, which answers only to the Supreme Leader and has its own distinct economic arrangements, schools, and neighbourhoods. “One of them grabbed my son from the bed,” says Goudarzi. “He raised him about 50-60cm off the ground and threw him to the ground. Raisi was watching.”
Raisi appears to have been deeply involved in these horrific cruelties. “During the time I was in Hamedan Prison many of my friends were hanged on Raisi’s orders,” claims Goudarzi. “One of them was a 16-year-old called Mahnaz Sahrakar. Before she was executed the Revolutionary Guards raped her.”
Such were Raisi’s qualifications when – according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs – he was appointed to the four-man Tehran death commission which helped oversee the 1988 massacre.
Death commissions were formed by Ayatollah Khomeini across Iran to judge the loyalty of political prisoners to the Islamic Republic. Trials sometimes lasted no more than a couple of minutes. If MEK members said they still agreed with the MEK, they were executed. If leftist prisoners said they were still atheists, they met the same fate.
Victims were loaded onto forklift trucks and hanged from cranes in groups of four or six. Their bodies were covered in disinfectant and they were driven to mass graves in refrigerated meat trucks. Families were forbidden to mourn their loved ones in public, handed a plastic bag filled with what remained of their possessions.
As for Raisi, he was “like a sword of massacre over political prisoners’ heads,” recalls Mahmoud Royaei, who says he came face-to-face with Raisi at the death panel for Gohardasht Prison in August 1988. “I once saw Raisi,” adds Nasrallah Marandi, who was also imprisoned in Gohardasht. “After signing the death sentence, he went to the execution hall to carry out and supervise the execution. Raisi’s death commission didn’t spare the mentally and physically ill ones, nor the young and old prisoners. By the fall of 1988, only one small ward made up all the political prisoners who had survived.”
Raisi has been rewarded for his loyal service to the Islamic Republic – and he has not lost his taste for cruelty with age. As head of the Iranian judiciary, Raisi directed the execution of 251 people in 2019 and 267 people in 2020 (a national total thought to be second only to China’s). And there have been many other grotesque injustices. Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist living in Paris, was lured to Baghdad in October 2019. He was kidnapped and brought to Iran, convicted of “corruption on earth”, then hanged. The wrestling champion Navid Afkari was executed last September after being convicted of murdering a security guard, a crime which, it is widely believed, he was forced to confess. In July 2020, an Iranian was reportedly executed for drinking alcohol.
On the streets, justice has been meted out even more summarily. In November 2019, anti-government protests were suppressed in a state crackdown in which hundreds – potentially thousands – of demonstrators were killed. An Amnesty International report found “a catalog of shocking human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment”. Children as young as 10 were detained. Arrestees faced waterboarding, electric shocks and mock executions.
The Iranian presidential race can most generously be described as a semi-election. Reformist figures were excluded from the contest. Six of the 12 Guardian Council members, monitors of the process, are appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the other six by the judiciary head, who is in turn appointed by the Supreme Leader. And Raisi won a vote which most Iranians skipped. The government-reported turnout of 48.8 per cent (disputed by the opposition) is a new low.
The truth is that presidents have little power anyway in a state where the Supreme Leader controls the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the media, foreign policy, and pretty much everything else. But any consolidation helps, and the Islamic Republic’s willingness to remove any obstacle in the path of Raisi is brazen – even by its own standards. “It’s always been like this behind the scenes,” says lawyer and activist Kaveh Shahrooz, who lost his uncle in the 1988 massacre. “But now it’s just a naked grab of power. It’s no longer about any sort of ideology. It’s no longer about having a democratic edifice.”
It also serves as an outward threat to the Iranian people, who, in three nationwide uprisings since 2018, have shown they are willing to resist. “The Islamic Republic is showing the people that it will kill them if they stand up for their rights. It’s a very obvious threat to the people,” says former prisoner Nasrin Parvaz.
It stands to reason, then, that Raisi was unapologetic when asked about the 1988 massacre on Monday. “I am proud of being a defender of human rights and of people’s security and comfort as a prosecutor wherever I was,” he said. “All actions I carried out during my office were always in the direction of defending human rights.”
For President Biden, who is attempting to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal, Raisi’s victory is – at minimum – a headache. Biden has demonstrated his capacity to acknowledge historic wrongs, becoming the first US president to recognise formally the Armenian Genocide and the first incumbent to visit the site of the Tulsa Massacre. His first foreign policy speech as president promised diplomacy rooted in “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity”.
Asked about Ebrahim Raisi at the weekend, national security adviser Jake Sullivan responded that the US was focused on nuclear diplomacy, and “whether the president is person A or person B is less relevant than whether their entire system is prepared to make verifiable commitments to restrain their nuclear programme”.
This formula may be harder to sustain when Raisi is inaugurated in August. The outgoing Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at least gave the Biden administration a way to carve out a notional distinction between hardliners and so-called reformists, and to normalise rapprochement with Iran. There can be no such triangulation when Raisi is in power.
This election was a turning point in image rather than substance. Iranian presidents govern in name only: the Supreme Leader held the power when Rouhani was president, and will continue to do so. “I don’t think somebody like Raisi is going to be able to make things that much worse,” says Shahrooz.
Which is horribly eloquent. If little is expected to change when Ebrahim Raisi, a man linked to a massacre, torture and a total disregard for human rights, takes presidential office, it is surely time to conclude that the Iranian state is completely beyond repair.