September 21, 2023
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly on September 19. While Raisi lambasted “attempts to universalize American ideals throughout the world” from the podium, hundreds of people outside of the building protested against Iran’s abysmal human rights record, which has significantly deteriorated since Raisi’s election in 2021. This alarming trend was epitomized by the September 2022 murder of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested by Iran’s morality police for not properly wearing a hijab, and the Iranian authorities’ brutal response to widespread popular protests against the regime’s oppression of women and intolerance of dissent that followed.
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AJC CEO Ted Deutch responded to Raisi’s remarks by calling on government leaders to “speak out forcefully against ongoing abuses by the Iranian regime reflecting its utter disregard for human rights.” He recalled, “The massive protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini a year ago and the brutal repression that followed are emblematic of its long history of violent repression targeting dissidents, women rights activists, and journalists; at the same time, it has escalated its persecution of religious minorities such as the Baha’i. The regime’s instruction to its security forces to use lethal force against protesters and its renewed detention and harassment of activists and relatives of victims of the crackdown in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death demonstrate its resolute determination to continue its repression and silence dissenters.”
President Raisi also used his UN General Assembly address to rail against the sanctions that foreign governments and the UN Security Council have imposed on Iran and many of its officials -- including Raisi himself -- at a time in which key UN-imposed sanctions on the regime’s ballistic missile program are set to expire. The governments that have supported the imposition of human rights and weapons-related sanctions on Iran have done so in an effort to curb the regime’s longstanding support for actors engaged in terrorism and human rights violations in the region and beyond -- including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Russia -- and which threaten the lives of civilians in Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere. Calling for governments to take concrete action at the UN to impede Iran from further developing its ballistic missile program and to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability, Deutch observed, “Iran seeks to inflict its reign of terror beyond its borders. The world cannot allow that to happen. The time to act is now.”
Here are five things to know about President Ebrahim Raisi and the impact that policies he has overseen are having on human rights in Iran and beyond.
- 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 2021 report presented to the General Assembly, the 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 longstanding emblematic events that have been met with persistent impunity, including the enforced disappearances and summary and arbitrary executions of 1988.”
In a 2021 interview, 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.
- 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, notably in response to nationwide protests in 2019 and to the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests sparked by the death of Jina Mahsa Amini last year.
As the head of the Iranian judiciary, Raisi presided over a 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.
Thereafter, from the outset of Raisi’s presidency, Iran’s authorities 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 2022, 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.
On September 16, 2022, Jina Mahsa Amini died in police custody following her arrest for allegedly failing to adhere to Iran’s mandatory veiling law for women. Her tragic fate ignited a wave of more than 1,600 protests across the country, led by women and girls chanting "Woman, Life, Freedom." The historic protests, reflecting widespread rage at decades of policies discriminating against women and at longstanding official impunity for violence, were met with extreme and excessive violence by Iranian security forces. Iranian authorities reportedly killed more than 500 protesters, more than half from Kurdish and Baluch areas of Iran, and nearly 20,000 protesters were arrested. Among those particularly targeted for arrest and punishment were hundreds of children, more than 60 of whom were killed. Many of those protesters arrested were subjected to torture and ill-treatment and tried in secret before Islamic revolutionary courts in proceedings that violated basic due process standards. In a March 2023 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, concluded that the violent crackdown had been ordered by senior officials and may have amounted to crimes against humanity.
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Following the crackdown against protesters, Raisi has remained committed to maintaining and strengthening Iran’s laws and policies that deny women’s equality. In recent months, despite widespread public opposition, Iran’s morality police have resumed their efforts to apprehend and punish women who defy the compulsory veiling laws. The UN Fact-Finding Mission on Iran reported in July that women and girls had been suspended from studies or banned from dormitories, while businesses had been fined or closed for non-enforcement of the compulsory veiling law. If adopted, a proposed new Hijab and Chastity Bill will escalate punishments for disobeying the dress code, including prison sentences and fines for both women and businesses seen as flouting the dress code.
Today, a year after Amini’s death, Iran’s authorities also continue to threaten, harass, and commit reprisals against victims of the 2022 crackdown and their family members. In a particularly alarming trend, since November 2022 more than 90 chemical poisoning incidents have been reported at educational institutions across 28 provinces in Iran, particularly girls’ schools; these have been alleged to be a form of intentional retaliation and intimidation by authorities against girls who participated in the protests. Iranian authorities are threatening and arresting others they suspect of planning protests to mark Jina Mahsa Amini’s death, initiating a new crackdown against women’s rights activists in advance of the anniversary, arresting some 22 human rights defenders in August 2023 alone.
As the regime began its crackdown, AJC advocated for and welcomed the UN Human Rights Council’s November 2022 condemnation of the regime’s conduct and creation of a new Independent Fact Finding Mission on Iran to investigate the violations committed since the beginning of the protests. In December 2022, AJC advocated for and welcomed the termination of Iran’s membership on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, an unprecedented step. AJC continues to call on governments to support independent human rights monitoring of Iran’s violations, including by the Special Rapporteur on Iran, and to urge individual governments to adopt targeted, Magnitsky-style sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for its ongoing abuses.
- 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.
In 2022, the already fraught situation of Iran’s Baha’is grew even more precarious, as detailed in a letter sent to President Biden by AJC and other U.S. organizations expressing alarm about the regime’s “ideological commitment to bring about the end of the Baha’i community as a viable entity in Iran.” The significant increase in Iranian state-sponsored hate propaganda targeting Baha’is and arrests of Baha’is in 2022 was repeated again in August 2023, when Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested or imprisoned nearly 60 Baha’i, including several elderly leaders of the religious community.
- Iran’s ties with terror groups and rogue States have grown deeper
Under Raisi’s presidency, Iran has continued other malign practices that threaten the human rights of citizens of other countries, including its exportation of weapons and terrorism abroad.
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” and made 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 Alberto Nisman, who was investigating the AMIA bombing and was later assassinated in his home, named Vahidi for his role in carrying out the operation. Vahidi 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 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.
Tehran has used its proxy army of more than a dozen militias and terror groups across the Middle East with outposts around the world, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who have conducted numerous terror operations targeted against Israelis, to help foment instability, carry out attacks, and expand the scope of the Islamic Revolution. Israeli officials have attributed the ongoing terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank to Iran and its terror network and recently revealed that Israel thwarted more than two dozen Iranian attacks against Jews and Israelis abroad around the world over the past year.
- Continued threats to destroy Israel
In public remarks, Raisi has continually threatened to destroy Israel. Last year, Raisi threatened to destroy Israel if the Jewish state carried out military strikes against its nuclear program. Similarly, in April as Israel marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, Raisi threatened to flatten Israeli cities.
In an alarming September report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, reported that Iran has expanded its stock of near-weapons-grade enriched uranium. Further, just days ahead of the UNGA session, the IAEA strongly condemned Iran's "unprecedented" decision to bar roughly one-third of the IAEA's most experienced inspectors from overseeing its nuclear sites. These developments, along with Raisi’s menacing remarks, indicate that Iran continues to pursue the development of nuclear weapons that are intended to threaten or be used against Israel.
Following Raisi’s address to the General Assembly, Deutch recalled, “As a state sponsor of terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran provides direct aid and political support to the enemies of Israel and acts to undermine regional and global security. As Iran continues to grow its uranium stockpile, we must prevent the further development of its ballistic missile program that can, in turn, provide nuclear weapons capabilities that would directly threaten Israel and her people.”
To this end, AJC is urging members of the UN Security Council to extend the missile-related restrictions imposed on Iran in Annex B of its resolution 2231 beyond their expiration date on October 18, 2023. Failing that, AJC is calling on members of the international community to take collective and individual measures to uphold the sanctions stipulated in Annex B.