The election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president last year was met with widespread outrage from Iranian dissidents and human rights experts, and with concern from Western governments.

There could be no clearer signal that Iran’s repressive government remains unrepentant and uninterested in genuine reform than its decision to place in its highest political office a figure directly implicated in the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988 and widespread impunity for officials implicated in brutal crackdowns against protesters, including in 2019.

Since Raisi assumed the presidency, Iran’s repressive practices, targeting religious minorities, women human rights defenders, and others, have only deepened, notwithstanding expressions of alarm by international human rights experts.

Despite being sanctioned by the U.S. for complicity in serious human rights violations, Raisi is set to join other world leaders at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly in late September. The gathering is an opportunity for world leaders to come together to address some of the most pressing global challenges. Among their top priorities should be to communicate clearly that Iran’s deeply troubling human rights record must be addressed alongside its other malign practices, including its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, calls for Israel’s destruction, and exportation of weapons and terrorism abroad, if Iran is ever to be seen as a trustworthy partner.

Here are five things to know about President Ebrahim Raisi and human rights in Iran.

  1. Raisi was a central figure in Iran’s notorious 1988 “Death Committees”

Born in 1960, Raisi grew up in a clerical family in Mashhad, the site of Iran’s holiest Shiite shrine. He participated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution as a teenager and attended seminary in Qom, the Iranian holy city and center of Shiite learning. He later attended Shahid Motahari University in Tehran, where he received a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence and law.

Raisi became a prosecutor in the early 1980s and was appointed deputy prosecutor general of Tehran in 1985. There, he played a central role in the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

As recounted in the report of a 2010 inquiry carried out by distinguished barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a secret fatwa at the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war creating committees to interrogate prisoners around the country about their political beliefs, identify supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedin) militant revolutionary movement, which had sought to overthrow the regime with Iraq’s assistance, and sentence them to death. In practice, the Commission also declared many other perceived opponents of the regime, including leftists, to be mohraeb, enemies of God, and ordered them killed.

Robertson’s inquiry revealed that the so-called “Death Committee” for Tehran consisted of a religious judge, a representative of the Ministry of Intelligence, and Tehran’s prosecutor. He specifically identified Raisi, as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran, as having taken the place of his superior on the Death Committee on many occasions. Robertson’s report concluded that within a few weeks of the issuance of the fatwa in July 1988, some 5,000 prisoners had been executed in secret on the Committee’s orders.

“Those helpless prisoners were paraded before the death committee, which asked a series of questions designed to test their loyalty to the state. Thousands were then blindfolded and directed to the gallows,” wrote Robertson. “They were hanged from cranes, four at a time, or in groups of six from ropes hanging from the stage of the prison assembly hall. Their bodies were doused with disinfectant, and they were buried by night in mass graves.” Robertson’s findings are supported by a 2011 report by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and those of other human rights organizations.

In a new report to be presented to the General Assembly later this fall, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman expressed alarm that Iranian authorities now appear to be taking steps to destroy evidence of the 1988 killings, including mass graves, and that they threatened to execute a Swedish-Iranian dual national after Swedish prosecutors announced they would seek a life sentence for a former Iranian official on charges that he participated in summary executions and enforced disappearances in 1988. Rehman characterized Iran’s actions as “hostage-taking,” and he urged the international community “to call for accountability with respect to long-standing emblematic events that have been met with persistent impunity, including the enforced disappearances and summary and arbitrary executions of 1988.”

In an interview earlier this year, Special Rapporteur Rehman told reporters, “I think it is time --and it's very important now that Mr. Raisi is the president (-elect)-- that we start investigating what happened in 1988 and the role of individuals…Otherwise, we will have very serious concerns about this president and the role, the reported role, he has played historically in those executions.” States convening at the UN General Assembly this fall should heed the Special Rapporteur’s call and take this long-overdue step.

  1. Impunity, arbitrary killings, and state-sanctioned violence have deepened under Raisi’s presidency

While much focus has been on Raisi’s role in executions in the late 1980s, since then he has continued to preside over policies that subject all Iranians to the threat of arbitrary detention, torture, and even death.

As the head of the Iranian judiciary, Raisi presided over the crackdown on human rights amid nationwide protests in November 2019. Under his watch, Raisi’s judiciary granted impunity to officials and security forces responsible for killing hundreds of men, women, and children and subjecting thousands to mass arrests, secret detention, and torture. As Special Rapporteur Rehman noted in a 2021 report recounting the allegations, “impunity for those actions and a lack of accountability prevail.” In his latest report, Rehman again reiterates his call on the international community to seek accountability for officials implicated in offenses against protesters in 2019.

Under Raisi’s presidency, Iran’s authorities have doubled down on their denial of women’s autonomy and right to participate in public life and their persecution of those who seek to change the status quo. In August, Raisi signed a decree enhancing punishments for women who violate mandatory veiling laws, and authorities televised what appeared to be a forced confession by one of several women arrested for violating the law.   

Moreover, since Raisi assumed the presidency, Iranian authorities have increased their use of the death penalty for non-serious offenses. As Special Rapporteur Rehman stressed to the General Assembly last year, “the structural flaws of the justice system are so deep and at odds with the notion of rule of law that one can barely speak of a justice system,” and the “extensive, vague and arbitrary grounds in Iran for imposing the death sentence…quickly can turn this punishment into a political tool.” In what is just the latest example of Iran’s use of this practice, an Iranian court this month sentenced two LGBT activists to death, finding the women guilty of “corruption on earth.”

  1. Religious minorities, including Baha’is, have faced heightened persecution under Raisi

Iran’s authorities have engaged in discriminatory practices against many religious and ethnic minority communities – including Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians – for decades. However, their systematic persecution of the Baha’is, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, is especially alarming, and has escalated since Raisi became president.

Since June 2022, the already fraught situation of Iran’s Baha’is has grown even more precarious, as detailed in a letter sent to President Biden by AJC and other U.S. organizations in August calling for U.S. action to prevent the commission of atrocity crimes and a statement of alarm by eight UN human rights experts. During the month of August alone, Baha’is reported more than 245 incidents of persecution, including arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, beatings, confiscation of properties and destruction of homes, and discriminatory exclusion from higher education. At the same time, the Iranian state dramatically increased its hate propaganda targeting Baha’is, posting an exponentially greater number of videos and articles vilifying Bahais than in past years. The civil society letter stressed that the regime’s recent actions are strong evidence of its “ideological commitment to bring about the end of the Baha’i community as a viable entity in Iran.”

  1. Iran’s ties with terror groups and rogue States have grown deeper

Upon taking office, Raisi hand-picked a presidential cabinet dominated by hardliners, including officials closely tied to acts of terrorism such as the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) - the deadliest antisemitic attack outside Israel since the Holocaust.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian is well-known for his close relationship with the Quds Force, the foreign operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Additionally, Amirabdollahian has also spoken about his close ties with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The foreign minister has described Israel as a “cancer tumor” and a “fake regime” as well as various references to the “final solution” to the Israeli problem.

Interior Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi became the first commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force in 1988. In this role, he helped to organize and carry out numerous foreign terror operations, including most notably the 1994 AMIA bombing that killed 85 people and injured more than 200. Argentine prosecutor Albert Nisman, who was investigating the AMIA bombing and was later assassinated in his home, named Vahidi for his role in carrying out the operation. He is one of five people wanted by Interpol for their suspected part in the terror attack.

Similarly, Iranian Vice President of Economic Affairs Mohsen Rezai, also a former commander of the IRGC, is wanted by Interpol for his role in the AMIA bombing.

In only a short time, Raisi’s hardline regime has increased Iran’s malign geopolitical activities, including its provision of support to rogue States and terrorist groups. Under Raisi, Iran has strengthened its ties with Russia, including making a deal to sell its advanced drones to Russia for the country to use in its war against Ukraine, leading the U.S. government to sanction the Iranian companies and individuals involved. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s leaders recently vowed to boost bilateral ties, even as Iranian-backed terror groups based in Syria carry out attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and also against Israel and supply the Lebanese-based Hezbollah terror group. In early August, President Raisi met with the leader of the terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who thanked him for his support, only days before hostilities escalated between the group and Israel.

  1. Continued threats to destroy Israel

In a rare news conference on Aug. 29, Raisi threatened to destroy Israel if the Jewish state carried out military strikes against its nuclear program.

Israel “will see if anything from the Zionist regime will remain or not,” Raisi said.

The Iranian president went on to boast about Palestinian terror groups launching rockets on the Jewish state.

“The Zionist regime should see that it cannot even protect itself from the resistance groups in Palestine with its threats.” Israel used to face “the Palestinians' stones” but now they have to deal with “their precision-guided rocket launchers,” he said. “Can they keep themselves safe? Can the Zionists defend themselves against Gaza despite the fact that its oppressed people are under blockade?”

Raisi’s comments came as Iran and world powers have been attempting to reach a deal to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that Iran has enough uranium near weapons-grade for a nuclear bomb.

The record above should make clear that Iran is a less trustworthy partner and more dangerous threat to Israel and international security under Raisi’s presidency than ever before. As world leaders prepare to gather in New York, they should reflect on its dismal and alarming record and resolve to take a new approach, one that insists that Iran show greater respect for international law, including human rights, as an essential requirement of any move toward normalization.




Back to Top