He sleepwalked through a massacre. Now, despite (or because of) a lack of skills or personality, this incurious cipher is likely to stumble upward into the role of Supreme Leader.
In 2017, a judge named Ebrahim Raisi emerged from relative obscurity to run for the presidency of Iran. Despite being a new arrival in the national consciousness, he garnered more than 38% of the vote, losing to incumbent President Rouhani. In 2021, Raisi won the presidency in a highly controversial election with 62% of the vote.
Despite being the current president and most likely successor to the top job in Iran—the Supreme Leader—Raisi remains largely unknown outside of this country. I haven’t seen any in-depth or even accurate reporting on the man.
As a concerned Iranian citizen and a close watcher of politics here and abroad, I would like to rectify that strange silence.
Before he ran for president in 2017, Raisi held many high-ranking positions in the judiciary but shied away from the press and rarely made the news. For those of us familiar with the history of Iran, however, his name was familiar and associated with a very traumatic episode in our history.
Ebrahim Raisi was one of the four people tasked with carrying out the massacre of political prisoners in the 1980s, which saw thousands of people executed in sham unjust trials. In our minds, Raisi was an extremist Islamist, whose nickname was “Ayatollah Mass Murder.” We thought of him as an unrepentant monster who’d lead Iran down a path of far-right extremism if he became president.
I think we were mistaken about him—not the fact that he is a monster, but what kind of monster he is.
It’s always reductive and cringeworthy when people use pop culture to describe real-life politics. No, Bernie Sanders is not Han Solo, and Donald Trump is not Darth Vader or Voldemort. However, I’m going to use pop culture to describe Raisi. I won’t compare him with the villains, but with the heroes—with Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Neo from The Matrix. But as you’ll see, this comparison is not complimentary.
Part 1: The hero has greatness thrust upon him
Ebrahim Raisi was in his 20s when he became the prosecutor of Karaj, one of Iran’s largest cities. He didn’t earn this position because he was a prodigy. He was randomly placed in the position because of the judicial vacuum that followed the 1979 revolution. The new regime had completely purged all the judges and prosecutors and didn’t have enough experienced or learned people to replace them. So clerics were tapped to fill the newly-vacant positions. Due only to the privilege of being a member of the revolutionary clergy class, the young Raisi landed in a position he couldn’t have dreamed of occupying in any normal situation.
For the next 44 years, Raisi would continue to be promoted into higher positions of power. He would become the General Inspector, the Attorney General, the First Deputy to Chief Justice, the custodian to Iran’s most important religious shrine, and finally the Chief Justice. None of these positions were elected ones, and the qualification for most of them included loyalty to the Supreme Leader and the regime. His first elected office was the presidency, which he won due to record-low turnout. None of his positions were gained thanks to qualification or hard work. He essentially sleepwalked the ladder of power—possibly to the top. His only qualification for each of his jobs was his loyalty to whoever had placed him there.
In the meantime, he was one of the main perpetrators of the worst political massacre in Iran’s history. One of the five members of the so-called “Council of Death”, Raisi was a judge who presided over the massacre. The regime has tried to justify the massacre by pointing out that the terrorist extremist group, MEK, had recently attacked Iran from the soil of Iraq. But the truth is, the prisoners who were killed in the sham trials had no part in the invasion, and some of whom were sentenced to short prison times because their “crimes” were trivial things such as handing out leaflets. Also, not all people who were massacred were members of the MEK, but included communists and some nonpartisan people. Basically, the goal of the massacre was to completely wipe off the leftwing parties, who were partners of the Islamists in the revolutionary period but now were rivals to their power. It is estimated that at least 3000 people were killed and some believe as much as ten times of that number to be more accurate. The trials basically consisted of the judges asking people if they recant their leftwing allegiance and are willing to sign a paper testifying to that, and if the answer was no, they’d be sent to their death.
Raisi was defined by this cruelty to people who were familiar with the history of the Islamic Republic. In the judiciary, he was a behind-the-scenes figure, so our narratives of him skipped almost three decades between this massacre and his first run for the presidency. His first run for the presidency revealed him as someone uncharismatic and radical, who had no realistic chance against the incumbent moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. His loss was inevitable and he did lose, getting 38% of the vote to Rouhani’s 57%.
Raisi never stopped running for president. He never shut down his campaign apparatus. Even when he was appointed Chief Justice, a position where people typically stay on for 10 years, his presidential ambitions were clear. Iranian conservatives kept asking him to run and remained steadfastly enthusiastic about him. This would have been bizarre if they planned on running him in another competitive election: His lack of charisma or a popular platform was not exactly a winning formula.
Turns out they weren’t planning any such thing. The Guardian Council barred all major moderate and reformist figures, basically rigging the election before it happened. The lack of any real competition in addition to severe economic strife (caused by the US sanctions and the Iranian conservatives’ Mephistophelian ploy to prevent Rouhani from reentering the nuclear after Biden was elected) led to the lowest turnout in the history of Iran’s elections, only 48%, down 24% from the previous one. Since essentially only the conservatives were voting, he won.
The common theme to Raisi’s political life is the fact that he never truly achieved anything, he was just always at the right place and time, and stood still as other people engineered success for him. Others purged the judiciary so he would be able to enter it as a prosecutor. The Supreme Leader kept promoting him. The conservatives chose him as the heir to the Supreme Leader, and then rigged an election for him.
But why? Why him?
Part 2: The hero is a blank canvas
One has to keep in mind that the Iranian conservatives are a fractured bunch. Some are populists; some are free-market diehards. But more than ideological differences, they’re divided over loyalty to powerful figures and institutions that vie for power. Before Raisi, they were never able to unite around one candidate, whether for the presidency or to groom for the position of Supreme Leader. But for Raisi, they managed it—and the alliance hasn’t really ended since.
Raisi, it seems, is somehow different and uniquely unifying—though not because he is skillful. No, Raisi has been able to unite all conservatives because he is just… unthreatening. It is a huge shock to realize that the man you’ve thought of as “Ayatollah Mass Murder” all this time is actually the least obviously threatening person who has ever entered national politics. He has no economic ideology, no foreign policy agenda, no ambition, no ideas to which he’s hotly committed. He repeats sentences fed to him and often messes them up. His head and heart are both empty.
I noticed the first signs of this man’s real personality during the 2021 elections. In his previous run, he had defined his economic agenda as a populist one, promising free housing and universal basic income. In 2021 his main policy was reducing the deficit. Of course, his main economic adviser had changed. When he became president, he created a team of economic officials who couldn’t see eye to eye at all, including populists and free market absolutists and people with idiosyncratic views. More than a year later, no one knows what his administration’s economic strategy or even worldview might be. The man simply knows nothing about the economy and is not interested in learning.
The same is true about foreign policy. Our minister of foreign affairs is a moderate who’s interested in reviving the nuclear deal, while his deputy and the chief negotiator is the most extreme enemy of the nuclear deal. Again, I’d challenge anyone to describe a coherent doctrine when it comes to this administration. The man simply doesn’t know and doesn’t care.
It’s not just that he is uninterested in policy. Donald Trump is not a policy-oriented man, but no one can deny the sheer force of his personality, which inspires fervent loyalty or fierce loathing. Raisi is just a blank space masquerading as a human. He disappears into the background, going days or months without making news. His eyes are always blank, and he seems to always regret his physical presence in any place he’s inhabiting at the moment. He has problems communicating with people whenever he’s not on a script, giving non-sequitur answers to questions. I am certain that he didn’t want to be president and was pushed to this position by others. He clearly has no ambition and always seems lost.
This lack of personality and ideology is what makes him acceptable to all conservatives who share nothing but hostility to the US and the Iranian moderates. If he had an idea of his own, he’d clash with some wing of his coalition. If he had a personality or ambitions, they wouldn’t be able to control him like a puppet. You have to keep in mind that Iranian conservatives don’t enter power-sharing agreements, they want all the power to themselves and they don’t want anyone to offer a differing opinion at all. They know anyone who gets their fangs on Raisi is able to have absolute control over him, so the “coalition” is just people who remain in Raisi’s orbit, hoping to monopolize him. They continue the infighting among themselves but Raisi remains in the middle, unchallenged, like a stone prize, forever the object of power rather than its subject even though he nominally wields it.
It is a known fact of literary criticism that the protagonists of escapist fantasies, like Harry Potter, Bella Swan, or Luke Skywalker don’t have much personality or character development so that the audience can easily project themselves into them and experience the fantasy. Raisi is like the protagonist of an escapist fantasy written by an Islamist: his empty head and his missing personality are precisely what make this coalition possible. It is not to his detriment, it is his strength.
Which is why I’m almost certain he’ll be our next Supreme Leader.
Many people point to the fact that he’s widely mocked by the people and no one cares to call his presidency a success, saying that this has disqualified him. I disagree. There is no one else that Iranian conservatives can agree on, because no one else is quite so empty. They’ll make him the Supreme Leader simply because he’s there, he casually survives, drifting through history like a leaf. Every great man of Iranian history has faced some kind of doom, either literal or metaphorical. But Raisi is a mediocre man, the platonic ideal of mediocrity, and he has nothing to be doomed for.
Part 3: The banality of evil
There was a viral Persian tweet that admonished people to stop making fun of Raisi and asked them to stop calling him a stupid buffoon, reminding people that he was behind Iran’s worst political massacre, that he is a monster, not a laughingstock.
The tweet reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. This book argues that Adolf Eichmann, one of the men responsible for the Holocaust, was not a virulent ideologue but simply a bureaucrat who was placed in a position to commit humanity’s greatest atrocity, whose crimes were rooted mostly in apathy and amorality and a sense of myopic duty to his job. Some historians have challenged this portrayal of Eichmann, arguing that this was just a ruse for the trial in Israel. I don’t know, and this point is not important for what I want to say. Another criticism of Arendt’s book was that it somehow excuses or humanizes Eichmann. With this I disagree: it actually makes him a much more terrifying monster.
Many of us are bigoted in ways that we can deny to ourselves. Many of us can be apathetic. Arendt shows us that apathy can be as dangerous as malice. If you are in the position for it, an apathetic automaton can efficiently and mindlessly go through genocide, never pausing to think or reflect.
Ebrahim Raisi is the epitome of the concept of the banality of evil. He sleepwalked through committing a massacre, sending thousands of people to their deaths only by applying a simple formula given to him by his superior. He spent three decades in the judiciary applying the conservative reading of Sharia law, thoughtlessly and automatically. Even as the president, he’s been completely subservient, repeating the words he is supposed to repeat and showing zero leadership skills. All the while his incompetence and lack of cohesive strategy has prevented a return to the nuclear deal and a lifting of sanctions. He’s now sleepwalking through a nation’s crumbling because of social unrest, economic strife, and increasing international isolation.
What will happen if or when he becomes the Supreme Leader? He will be subservient even then, forever in thrall of whoever is holding his leash at the moment. The scary thing, of course, is that probably no one will.