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.

If anything, the choice—or really, the lack thereof—on Friday is a reminder of how deeply the regime was implicated in the crimes of 1988. President Hassan Rouhani could do no better than to indirectly allude to the fact that his opponent had been involved in executions; photos promptly circulated of Revolution-era newspaper clippings in which Rouhani praised earlier waves of executions. Rouhani recently won the vote of Mehdi Karroubi, now a reformist icon held under house arrest by the regime; Karroubi appears in Amnesty International’s 1990 report on the prison massacres, saying, “We have already sent so many people to the gallows because they were apostates and enemies of God, and we did it rightly. Now let us send two lots of capitalists to the gallows,” and adding, “It does not matter whether it [execution] solves the problem or not.” The Amnesty report, analyzing Karroubi’s comment, adds, “In some quarters in Iran the death penalty seems to have acquired the status of a virtue in itself.” And Rouhani’s own minister of justice, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, is arguably even more deeply implicated in the 1988 massacres than Raisi, having served as the intelligence ministry’s representative to the death panels.

The impact of Raisi’s election on the United States would be complicated, too. He clearly favors a tougher policy towards Washington, and relations would likely be conducted by actors less dexterous than Mohammad Javad Zarif and Abbas Araghchi. While Raisi does not oppose the nuclear deal, an attempt to squeeze more out of the United States within the current framework would have unpredictable consequences, since the Trump administration shares his wariness of the deal. Even so, much of the regime’s foreign and defense policy rests beyond the authority of the president, and is instead in the hands of the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard.

Still, the presence of a more reliably hardline figure in the presidency would shift the domestic context of Iran’s foreign policy. There would be few voices for detente with the United States, even as there are fewer voices for detente in the United States. The risk of a war, which would likely be a disaster for both Iran and America, would grow. The MEK, which has long worked to enlist American blood and treasure in its quest to regain power in Iran, would present itself as Raisi’s oldest enemy. Bids to increase pressure on Iran on human-rights grounds might find new traction, although measures against Raisi would presumably not be taken against the even deadlier president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, whose state, far from being an enemy, we have legally committed our nation to protect.

In the medium term, Raisi’s rise would leave the moderate camp with a severely diminished voice in the Iranian power structure, a distortion that could raise the risk of upheaval. And in the long term, a Raisi victory would boost the likelihood that the former death panelist would become the next supreme leader. Even in the sorry history of the Islamic Republic, a win by Ebrahim Raisi would be a step back.

John Allen Gay is coauthor of War With Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences. He tweets at @johnallengay.

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