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Iran's mullahs choose executioner as front-runner for president

By
Struan Stevenson
Ebrahim Raisi greets the crowd during an election rally in Tehran in 2017. He is again running for president of Iran. File Photo by Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE
Ebrahim Raisi greets the crowd during an election rally in Tehran in 2017. He is again running for president of Iran. File Photo by Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE

June 1 (UPI) -- With presidential elections due to take place on June 18, the theocratic dictatorship that rules Iran faced a dilemma: 592 people had registered as candidates.

Three of them were even sufficiently delinquent to be considered credible in the eyes of the mullahs. But the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had to choose one who he would ensure would be backed by the powerful Guardian Council and would then be certain to win the election based on intimidation, buying votes, stuffed ballot boxes and outright fakery.

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The chosen one is Ebrahim Raisi, a notorious executioner and abuser, placed on the U.S. Treasury blacklist in November 2019 for serial human rights violations.

Many Iran watchers are struggling to come to terms with Raisi's emergence as the key presidential front-runner. He has neither academic nor religious standing. Entering the main seminary in the Holy City of Qom at age 15, he joined the regime's judiciary as assistant prosecutor in Karaj (west of Tehran) when he was only 19. He never studied law, but his loyalty and ruthless enthusiasm for crushing opponents of the fundamentalist regime was his ticket to fame and fortune. He became the prosecutor of the revolutionary court of Karaj when he was just 20.

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In 1988, as deputy prosecutor of Tehran, he was one of the four individuals whom the then supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appointed to a "death commission" to carry out his infamous fatwa to massacre imprisoned activists of the democratic opposition Mojahedin e-Khalq. During that massacre, 30,000 political prisoners were summarily executed within a few months.

For his zeal as a merciless executioner, he was promoted to the position of Tehran prosecutor in 1989 and held that position for five years. In 2012, he became deputy head of the judiciary and then judiciary chief in March 2019. Since then, he has directed the execution of 251 people in 2019, and 267 people in 2020, and scores of executions so far in 2021. Raisi often supervised the torture of men and women and then witnessed their hanging.

Raisi's fast track to the presidency is the clearest sign yet that the supreme leader is panicking. Since 2018, there have been three nationwide uprisings, with daily protests continuing in towns and cities across Iran. The economy has collapsed. More than 75% of the population now struggle to survive on daily incomes below the international poverty line. Children rummage through trash cans for scraps of food.

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The situation has become explosive. Some 80 million Iranians are sick of the mullahs, sick of their corruption and incompetence and sick of their squandering the nation's wealth on foreign proxy wars and terrorism, turning Iran into an international pariah. Factional feuding among the ruling elite, as the mullahs struggle to cling to power, has brought the regime to its knees. A well-organized and potent opposition movement has grown in influence and popularity across the nation. There are daily calls for a mass boycott of the sham elections.

To try to deal with the escalating crisis, Ali Khamenei has found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. He has had to close ranks in order to consolidate his rapidly dwindling authority. Confronted by three "hard-line" presidential candidates, he had to ensure the disqualification of former uncompromising President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and loyal insider Ali Larijani, who were not deemed sufficiently ruthless.

Larijani was the parliament speaker for 12 years, secretary of the supreme national security council, head of the state-run radio and TV, minister of culture and an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general. But even these radical qualifications were insufficient for Khamenei. He instructed the Guardian Council, which has the final say in who the candidates shall be, to boot Ahmadinejad and Larijani, leaving Raisi as the favored candidate. The Guardian Council is the supreme leader's mouthpiece and does his bidding.

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Larijani has quietly accepted his disqualification, while Ahmadinejad has stated he feels like a shepherd on a hill watching an approaching flood that will engulf the nation. His prophecy may come true. Desperate to distract public attention from his blatant manipulation of the presidential election and to silence the disgruntled internal rival factions, Khamenei helped to prolong the conflict in Gaza.

The head of a pro-Tehran Palestinian group even sent a letter, thanking him and the IRGC Quds Force and its commander for being on the "battlefield" in Gaza and providing material support, weapons and training to carry on the deadly conflict. Khamenei hoped that this would persuade voters that the regime was still the main supporter of Palestine and arch-enemy of Israel.

But even this futile show of force will not provide a way out of the deadly impasse Khamenei is facing. Iran is a powder keg ready to explode, with a mass of predominantly young, hungry and enraged people eager to light the touch-paper. Repression, restrictions on social media, arrests, torture and executions have failed to prevent the nationwide spread of an organized opposition in the form of MEK resistance units. Khamenei is battling for his survival.

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The fake elections in Iran should be an abject lesson for Western appeasers who for decades have pinned their hopes on illusory moderates or "reformers" within the clerical dictatorship. Because it signaled weakness, this misguided approach worked to the detriment of the Iranian people and only emboldened the regime. Assured of silence and inaction by the international community, the mullahs are confident that they can literally get away with murder.

During the last month, from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from Beirut, Lebanon, to Baghdad and from Damascus, Syria, to the Gaza Strip, killings and explosions have taken place everywhere, with the mullahs' regime as the main instigator or facilitator in every case. Further attempts at appeasement or revising the failed nuclear deal will only encourage more repression internally and more aggression externally.

The time has come for the West to end its policy of appeasement and adopt a firm approach, condemning the sham election and standing beside the Iranian people in their demand for regime change and for the indictment in the international courts of Ali Khamenei, Raisi and the other leaders of Iran for murder, human rights abuse and crimes against humanity.

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Struan Stevenson is the Coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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