A Brief History of the 'Butcher of Tehran' | Opinion

The "Butcher of Tehran" could be walking the halls of the United Nations next week, mingling with world leaders at the General Assembly—if the Biden administration fails to stand firm. According to multiple reports, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi plans to attend the annual summit in New York, despite sanctions imposed by the United States that would bar his entry into the country for his long-standing role in "serious human rights violations." To uphold America's leadership on human rights, as well as to signal strength in the face of recent Iranian terror plots on American soil, President Biden must continue to deny Raisi's entry.

Raisi started his career in 1981 as the prosecutor of Karaj and Hamadan Provinces. He played a leading role in persecuting minorities, especially the Bahais, and political opponents that left untold numbers dead, tortured, and jailed. Upon moving to Tehran as the deputy prosecutor, Raisi served as a member of the so-called "Death Committees," created by the notorious Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali (aka the "hanging judge"). In 1988, Raisi was directly implicated in executing some eight thousand political prisoners who had already served non-capital sentences. The highly respected international lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who investigated the massacre, found it to be "the second-worst violation of prisoners' rights since the end of World War II, superseded only by the mass killing in Srebrenica, Bosnia, and Herzegovina."

In a 2018 interview, Raisi defended his role in "fighting the enemies of the state," prompting two leading human rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to call for an investigation of Raisi for crimes against humanity of "mass murder, enforced disappearance, and torture" under international law.

Ebrahim Raisi
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a press conference on July 19, 2022, in Tehran Contributor/Getty Images

Raisi's decades-long judicial career involved Islamic Revolutionary Courts (IRC) founded by Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini in 1979 to fight a range of offenses from drug trafficking to blasphemy to crimes against the vaguely defined "security of the state." Raisi's close relations with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his son Mujtaba,who unofficially runs the security apparatus,elevated him to the position of deputy chief justice between 2004 and 2014. During his 10-year tenure on the bench, Iran experienced a marked deterioration in human rights and religious freedoms. On the advice of the intelligence unit of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and the Quds Force (IRGC-QF) intelligence unit, Raisi punished political opponents of the regime and dissidents. He accepted forced confessions obtained under torture as evidence in court and took a very strong position against women who defied modesty ordinances, including veiling.

As the deputy chief justice, Raisi helped to launch a hostage-diplomacy program. Desperate to release its operatives who were jailed in the West, the Guards and Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) targeted dual-nationals and foreigners for a possible exchange. They were seized, tortured into making false confessions, and brought before the IRC. Four of Raisi's appointed judges—Abolghassem Salavati, Mohammad Moghiseh, Yahya Pirabbasi, and Hassan Zareh Dehnavi—were known for conducting trials for foreigners and dual nations and sentencing them to long-term prison stays. Some 35 Westerners, among them 17 Americans, were arrested on trumped-up charges such as espionage, crimes against national security, and crimes that undermine the Islamic Republic during his tenure. Many were later exchanged for regime operatives in Western jails. Raisi's subsequent appointments as attorney general (2014 to 2016) and supreme court justice (2019 to 2021) virtually assured the hardline position of the IRCs and perpetuated the abhorrent practice.

Allowing Raisi into the United States, regardless of the reason, would not simply constitute an about-face on the Biden administration's commitment to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy. It would reward the Iranian regime even as it actively targets Americans. On Aug. 10, the Department of Justice unsealed an indictment of Shahram Poursafi for plotting to kill former national security advisor John Bolton and (as was later revealed) former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Other Americans are also under threat. This year, Iranian operatives plotted to abduct Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist living in Brooklyn. Together, these incidents point to IRGC-QF efforts to extend its terror campaign—beginning with an attempt on the Saudi ambassador's life in 2011—to American soil.

Some might argue that making an exception to U.S. law for Raisi at this point would reinforce America's commitment to diplomacy. However, yet another concession from the Biden administration would send the wrong signal to Tehran. Extending an olive branch in the face of brazen aggression could only invite more of it—in the United States and elsewhere.

Such a move would have other long-term effects. It would undermine U.S. sanctions, its most effective means short of conflict to promote order in the world. After Biden's much-critiqued meeting with Saudi leadership, it would further undercut America's support for human rights. To send a strong message to Tehran that America will not sacrifice human rights or the safety of its citizens, Biden must say "no" to Raisi.

Farhad Rezaei is a senior fellow at the Philos Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own