Could Iran Elect Its Own Rodrigo Duterte?

Ebrahim Raisi in 2015. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Tasnim News Agency/Hamed Malekpour

Ebrahim Raisi oversaw 1988’s infamous “death panels.” Now he could unseat Hassan Rouhani.

What is your political affiliation?

Are you willing to go on television to condemn members of your party?

Are you willing to fight with our armed forces against your party?

Are you willing to put a noose around the neck of an active member of your party?

Are you willing to walk through minefields to clear them for our army?


In the summer of 1988, prisoners across Iran were brought before panels of judges that asked them questions like these. Several thousand prisoners did not answer to the panels’ liking, and were hanged. Their bodies were buried in secret; relatives were forbidden from marking their graves or holding funerals.

On Friday, one of those judges may become the next president of Iran. Ebrahim Raisi, who was then the deputy prosecutor for Tehran, now enjoys the backing of Iran’s clerical establishment, its conservative press, powerful economic institutions, Elliott Abrams, and, by all indications, the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself. It is unclear that Raisi actually enjoys the support of a majority of voters, but in Iran that is not necessarily an obstacle to victory. And so a man implicated in what Human Rights Watch branded “a crime against humanity under international law” might take the helm of one of the world’s most consequential states.

Raisi does not look like the sort of man one would imagine in the role of mass murderer. His voice is a touch high and thin, his enunciation taut; he often looks and sounds just a little bored when speaking. His forehead frequently shines with a film of sweat, and a damp lock sometimes slips out from under his turban. People would speak of Khomeini’s “merciless black eyes” and their piercing gaze; Raisi looks a bit like Droopy. And the accounts of the judges on the infamous death panels of 1988 often have a bland, bureaucratic air—while the jailers were torturing, raping, beating and staging mock executions, the judges are often seen conferring or ticking boxes on forms; the prisoners quickly became suspicious of their mild conduct. “The interrogators’ reactions made them uneasy,” reports the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center’s Deadly Fatwa: Iran's 1988 Prison Massacre. “When a prisoner admitted to disagreeing with the Islamic Republic’s philosophy or raised another contentious issue, instead of getting angry and making threats as in the past, the interrogators encouraged the prisoners to continue speaking their minds.” Raisi is not Hitler but Eichmann, a Schreibtischtäter—desk murderer.

There are some today, even beyond the regime’s supporters, who will defend or at least minimize the guilt of the 1988 hangings. Many of the victims were members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, Islamists with a Marxisant flair who had helped overthrow the shah (killing a few Americans before his fall) but then fallen out with Khomeini’s camp. The MEK then engaged in an assassination campaign, killing a number of senior regime officials (including the president, prime minister and chief justice) and wounding future president and supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who permanently lost the use of his right hand. The Mujahedeen then aligned themselves with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In the summer of 1988, as that war was beginning to wind down, they invaded Iran. The attack was a disaster, cut to pieces within days. In this context, some of the massacre’s apologists argue that the killings were typical stuff for wartime—an almost understandable, perhaps even necessary measure against national enemies in a time of crisis.

The historical record contradicts this view. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was one of the most senior figures in the regime at the time and who had lost a son to an MEK bomb, repeatedly confronted the death panel about its conduct even in the midst of Iran’s crisis. A tape of one of these meetings, at which Raisi was present, was released late last year; in the tape, Montazeri called the executions “the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic. History will condemn us for what was done at your hands, and your names will be recorded among history’s criminals.” He worried that posterity would, due to their actions, view Khomeini as “bloodthirsty.”