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June 29 2021


Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi is Exactly Who You Think He is

Cameron Khansarinia


Originally published in Newsweek.

Politics is complicated. In the Middle East, even more so.

The complex countries, performative personalities and harrowing history of the region rarely allow for black and white answers to even the most straightforward questions. The winner of last week’s “election” in Iran, however, is different. Despite attempts by analysts, journalists and commentators—whether out of habit or in pursuing an agenda—to demystify Ebrahim Raisi or to seek nuance in his political rise, he is exactly who you think he is—a killer.

Ebrahim Raisi, lacking any formal education or legal experience, became a revolutionary “judge” in the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and immediately rose through the political ranks. To some analysts, this is a sign of his “shrewd opportunism.” To Iranians, Raisi’s ascension, the one blithely compared in leading international outlets to that of an indefatigable corporate tycoon, is soaked in the blood of their loved ones.

As a young revolutionary judge, Raisi’s early career bore more resemblance to a zealous Al-Qaeda operative than a rising politician. To the tens of thousands of Iranians who continue to bear the brunt of his crimes, Ebrahim Raisi is a terrorist. His leadership of the Islamic Republic’s death commissions, which featured seconds-long kangaroo courts leading to mass executions of political dissidents, has been recognized by Amnesty International and other leading human rights institutions as an ongoing crime against humanity. It is ongoing because Raisi, with a zeal perhaps not seen again until the formation of the Islamic State, had his victims tortured and buried in mass, unmarked graves. To this day, many families are unaware of the location of the bodies of their loved ones.

Recent interviews with the families of those taken hostage by Raisi and his coterie of revolutionaries recount horror stories of newborn babies being slammed against the floors of prison rooms. Raisi not only ordered this—he watched while it happened. His brutality extended to sexual perversion with the systematic rape of virgin prisoners. Inspired by the fanaticism of Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamist ideology, Raisi’s revolutionaries raped the young prisoners before killing them to prevent what they feared would otherwise be their ascension to heaven.
That Iran analysis in the West is out of touch with events inside the country is no secret to serious Iran watchers and more importantly, to Iranians themselves. The Iranian people, in an ongoing protest movement against the Islamic Republic, have often chanted, perhaps in direct response to the Western-based analysts who promote “reform” within the Iranian state: hardliners, reformists, the game is over! Yet the speed and callousness with which so many took to op-ed pages and evening news programs to explain, contextualize, or otherwise justify the unmatched depravity of a man who has devastated Iranian society is unprecedented.

The treatment of Raisi, and the Islamic Republic more broadly, in leading foreign outlets is something Iranians have grown accustomed to. Pleas on social media, internet petitions and video messages from inside the country practically begging analysts and journalists in the West to hear about Iran and the Islamic Republic from their perspective are often ignored. Lacking the coveted blue checkmark on Twitter, everyday Iranians are ignored and denied the opportunity to tell their truth about Raisi and his regime. Even prominent Iranian activists and dissidents, whether at home or in exile, are consistently sidelined in favor of talking heads who attempt to refine Raisi’s wickedness with postulations and explanations from an introductory level international relations course.

The resounding question from Iranians is why their country is singled out for such treatment, why such disregard and disrespect is reserved for them. They’re right. Rarely in contemporary coverage of foreign nations are the voices of the indigenous population so routinely ignored and their suffering so flippantly cast aside in favor of “nuance” that looks much more like whitewashing and modern-day intellectual imperialism.

Ebrahim Raisi isn’t a complicated creature to be subjected to elaborate exegesis, he is a master criminal with the blood of untold thousands on his hands. He is a rapist. He is a torturer. This is the “context” in which he should be explained, presented and analyzed. His selection as the president of the Islamic Republic and its political implications should be scrutinized in the same way as the selection of a new leading ISIS lieutenant, not like some new European prime minister.

Out of respect for his victims and out of respect for the most basic of journalistic and scholastic principles, Ebrahim Raisi and his regime cannot continue to be normalized. He is not normal, nor is his regime.

Cameron Khansarinia is policy director of the Washington-based National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI). His Twitter is @khansarinia.