If Iran has proven to be a persistent headache for the West over the last decade, it’s one that’s about to get a whole lot worse.
From the seizing of British tankers in the Gulf, to its unlawful jailing of British citizens like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and its talk of wiping Israel off the map, hopes of the thawing of relations with the Islamic republic have often been raised, then dashed.
And now, just as Donald Trump ’s removal from Washington was reason to believe Iran might come back in from the cold, many fear Tuesday's inauguration of newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi will prove to be the biggest threat of all.
Just days before Raisi takes power, a deadly drone attack on an Israeli oil tanker in the Gulf, which killed a Briton and a Romanian, has caused another sudden escalation of tensions.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab called the attack “deliberate, targeted, and a clear violation of international law”, while Iran responded by warning against any “adventurism” by the West.
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Image:Iranian Presidency/AFP via Getty)
Raisi, who is personally subject to US sanctions because of human rights abuses, has been dubbed the ‘Butcher of Tehran’ and with good reason - many Iranians remember his monstrous reign as a prosecutor after the revolution in 1979, during which he supervised the torture and murders of thousands of dissidents who had dared criticise the regime.
The West had troubles with his moderate predecessor Hassan Rouhani, so is bracing itself for the hardline rule of a much more hostile unltraconservative leader.
Since his election last month hopes have already faded of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, negotiated by Rouhani. When asked recently by reporters whether he would meet with US president Joe Biden, Raisi simply responded “no”.
Instead, following Trump’s pulling out of the deal in 2018, Iran this year began enriching uranium for nuclear reactors again.
Dr Salam Vakil, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think house, says Raisi’s election means hardliners now control all branches of the state for the first time in almost a decade - and that’s bad news for the rest of the world.
He says: “Raisi’s election has driven home a harsh fact for the international community: The Islamic Republic will not be undergoing its long hoped for transformational reform in the near future.
“Iran’s reformist project has reached a dead end.”
Mark Almond, director of The Crisis Research Institute, Oxford, says that Raisi’s track record of mercilessly crushing opponents “should serve as a warning to anyone in the West who is hoping that this hardline, ultra-conservative with blood-soaked hands will be a friend.”
Image:ISNA NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty I)
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Born in the holy city of Mashhad in northeast Iran in 1960, Raisi trained in an Islamic seminary from the age of 15.
When the Shah was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini in the Iranian Revolution of 1978, Raisi was a deputy prosecutor in Tehran and became one of four judges on a committee that retried prisoners in jail for political crimes.
By then he was already wearing his trademark black turban, which in Shiah tradition means he claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
Around 5,000 men and women were sentenced to death by what became known as the “Death Committee”, while relatives and human rights groups charge that as many as 30,000 critics of the regimes disappeared.
London-based human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson described the slaughter as the worst crime against humanity since the concentration camps of the Second World War.
The victims, he said, “were hanged from cranes four at a time, or in groups of six… some were taken to army barracks at night, directed to make their wills, and then shot by firing squad.
“Their bodies were doused with disinfectant, packed in refrigerator trucks and buried at night in mass graves.”
Survivors have also alleged that Raisi ordered some of his victims to be tossed off cliffs. To this day, relatives have not been told where their loved ones lie.
Raisi became a household name in 2017 when he ran for president against Rouhani, after which he was appointed head of Iran’s judiciary, when he oversaw another brutal crackdown of dissidents following the November 2019 protests.
Amnesty International, which has investigated his role in the crackdowns, has called for Raisi to be tried for crimes against humanity.
“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” says Amnesty’s General Secretary Agnes Callamard.
Raisi comes to power at a critical time for Iran, inheriting a troubled economy which has been hit hard by US sanctions, the Covid pandemic and decades of mismanagement. Inflation is out of control with the prices of staples like butter and oil more than doubling in the past year.
Jason Brodsky, a senior Middle East analyst at the London-based Iran International, says most Iranians are just as concerned about a Raisi presidency as the rest of the world. “Iranians know Ebrahim Raisi as an executioner and imprisoner,” he says. “He is the first chief justice to assume Iran’s presidency, and there is great fear of the continued darkness that lies ahead.”