In the summer of 1988, Iran’s supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the secret executions of thousands of political prisoners. Iran then denied reports of the slaughter, calling them “nothing but propaganda” based on “forgeries.” It also ruthlessly suppressed efforts by the families of the disappeared to find out what had happened to their relatives, including the location of their burial sites.
More than 30 years later, the world still doesn’t know how many prisoners were murdered, though a landmark 2017 report from Amnesty International put the minimum number at “around 5,000.” Other reports suggest a figure as high as 30,000.
But one point is not seriously in doubt: Among the handful of Iranian leaders most involved in the “death commissions” was Ebrahim Raisi. At the time of the massacres, Raisi, the son of a cleric and the product of a clerical education, was deputy prosecutor general of Tehran, later rising to become Iran’s chief justice. In 2018 he called the massacres “one of the proud achievements of the system.”
Last week he was elected president of Iran in a rigged process in which centrist candidates were disqualified before the vote took place.
What does this mean for the world outside Iran?
One awkward question is how Western leaders should deal with a foreign leader who is currently under U.S. Treasury Department sanctions for his human-rights abuses. Progressives sometimes call for the arrest of Israeli leaders traveling abroad for alleged crimes against Palestinians. It’ll be interesting to see if these same progressives have any consistency in their principles by calling for Raisi’s arrest should he travel abroad, perhaps to New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
A second question is what his election means for a restored Iran nuclear deal, which the Biden administration is keen to restart after the Trump administration withdrew from it in 2018. Negotiators in Vienna have reportedly already completed the revised accord.
According to one analysis, Iran will most likely move quickly to finalize an agreement while the departing, ostensibly moderate government of Hassan Rouhani remains in office, the better for it to receive the blame for the deal’s shortcomings (as Iranian hard-liners see them) while Raisi’s government reaps the benefits of sanctions’ relief.
That may well be, to the extent that the Kabuki theater of Iranian politics matters much on questions dictated by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The Kabuki extends to the deal itself, which Iran will pretend to honor and the West will pretend to verify and enforce.
The one thing it will achieve is a fleeting diplomatic victory for the Biden administration, since the Raisi government will never concede to additional demands for additional curbs on Iran’s nuclear and military programs. In the meantime, billions of dollars of new money will flow to Iran’s malevolent proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Gaza and Yemen.
But the important question raised by Raisi’s elevation is not about the nuclear deal. It’s about the kind of regime we are dealing with.
Several years ago, Henry Kissinger asked whether Iran was “a nation or a cause.” If Iran’s ambitions are defined by normal considerations of national security, prosperity and self-respect, then the U.S. can negotiate with it on the basis of objective self-interest, its and ours. Alternatively, if Iran’s ambitions are fundamentally ideological — to spread the cause of its Islamic Revolution to every part of the Middle East and beyond — then negotiations are largely pointless. Iran will be bent on dominance and subversion, not stability.
This is why Raisi’s rise matters. Although he’s often described as “ultraconservative,” it’s more accurate to say that he’s “ultrarevolutionary,” in the sense that he remains the loyal and unrepentant Khomeinist he became as a young man. That makes it possible, even likely, that he will succeed Khamenei when the supreme leader, who is 82 and rumored to be suffering from prostate cancer, dies.
Those who thought that Iranian politics would ultimately move in a more moderate direction were wrong. The regime is doubling down on religion, repression and revolution.
The Biden team will make the argument that, whatever its flaws, the deal on the table in Vienna is still the best option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, on the view that military action is unthinkable and the Trump administration’s policy of maximum sanctions didn’t stop Iran’s uranium enrichment drive. The argument makes a certain amount of sense — at least if the true goal of U.S. policy is to find a face-saving exit from the Middle East, akin to what the 1973 Paris Peace Accords did for the U.S. and Indochina.
But if long experience in the Middle East has taught us anything, it’s that the region doesn’t easily leave the rest of the world alone. A less-restricted Iran means more regional mayhem. It means Arab states more likely to acquire nuclear capabilities of their own. It means a nervous Israel, more willing to take its chances. Whatever else happens in Vienna, Raisi’s presidency means that the 42-year crisis with Iran is about to get worse.