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Who is Ebrahim Raisi, the front-runner in Iran's presidential race?

Here’s what you need to know about Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative cleric seen as the heavy favorite to replace outgoing President Hassan Rouhani.
Ebrahim Raisi

Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line Iranian judiciary chief known for his role in the mass execution of thousands of prisoners in the late 1980s, is heavily favored to win Iran’s presidential election next week. If elected, Raisi has pledged to tackle "poverty and corruption, humiliation and discrimination.” 

Raisi held a mass rally Thursday with thousands in attendance at a soccer stadium in the southeastern city of Ahvaz, despite concerns over the coronavirus.

The Guardian Council, a 12-member body that vets potential candidates, announced last month that seven candidates would be allowed to run in the June 18 presidential poll. Two of the applicants most likely to pose a threat to Raisi, former parliament speaker Ali Larijani and current Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, were excluded from running. 

The 60-year-old Raisi is widely believed to be the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who considers Raisi a close confidant and possible successor. In March 2019, Khamenei appointed Raisi as head of Iran’s judiciary, where he launched a “war on corruption" and maintained Iran’s designation as one of the world’s top executioners. 

Raisi has made several visits to Najaf, where top Iraqi Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani is based. However Sistani did not agree to receive him, an apparent sign of rejection to Iran's hardliners.

In November 2019, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Raisi and other members of the supreme leader’s inner circle for “advancing the regime’s domestic and foreign oppression,” which included the executions of minors. 

Raisi was born in 1960 in a small village near the holy city of Mashhad, which is Iran’s second-biggest city. As a teenager, he entered a seminary in Qom, where he studied under Khamenei and participated in protests against the shah.

His judicial career began in 1981 when Raisi was appointed prosecutor of the city of Karaj, and in 1985 he became a deputy prosecutor in Tehran. 

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini appointed Raisi to a four-man “death commission” that helped facilitate the purge of perceived dissidents from Iran's jails. Amnesty International estimates more than 5,000 prisoners, a majority of them affiliated with the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran dissident group, were killed across 32 cities. 

In 2009, he defended the executions of a dozen people who took part in the protests that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection. 

Raisi has held several high-ranking judicial positions, including serving as Iran’s prosecutor general. In 2016, Khamenei appointed Raisi as custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, the deep-pocketed foundation that manages the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad.  

The conservative cleric captured nearly 16 million votes during the 2017 presidential race, but lost in a landslide to President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist who is term-limited from running again. In 2019, Raisi was also named deputy chief of the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the clerical group that selects the country’s supreme leader.   

Citing his role in the 1988 mass executions, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran has called on the international community to investigate Raisi for crimes against humanity, describing him as "a pillar of a system that jails, tortures, and kills people for daring to criticize state policies."

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