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Examining the legacy of Iran’s late president Ebrahim Raisi

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Iran's late president, Ebrahim Raisi, was a hard-liner known for crushing dissent. His policies were an extension of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Before Raisi became president in 2021, he was head of Iran's judiciary. For more on his legacy, we reached out to Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch. She researches human rights abuses in Iran.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: So his legacy is largely affiliated with his tenure in the judiciary, that had been the cornerstone of repression in Iran. He famously sat on a panel that decided the fates of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Those trials fell grossly short of international standards, and his tenure in the judiciary - and also him overseeing the judiciary prior to his presidency - all are hallmarks of his responsibility. His election, in one of the most noncompetitive elections in the Islamic Republic, to presidency was part of the consolidation of power by hard-liners, and always, a pillar of hard-liners' approach to governance has been restriction on freedom of expression, as well as social freedom and women's rights.

FADEL: So were those the defining characteristics of his rule - more restrictive and repressive measures?

SEPEHRI FAR: Yes, as well as the crackdown against the mass popular protest.

FADEL: Right. And just to remind people, those were protests after the death of Mahsa Jina Amini. She was 22, detained over the way she wore her headscarf by the morality police. She died in custody, and there was a mass revolt in the country.

SEPEHRI FAR: That is correct, and at the head of the executive branch and presidency, he bore significant responsibility in authorities' violent and bloody response to those, as well as arrest and prosecution of hundreds of peaceful dissidents, as well as thousands of protests.

FADEL: But a lot of people describe the presidency as not much of a powerful position, as something that is sort of exchanged - that it's the highest elected leader, but it's the supreme leader in Iran, Khamenei, that really holds the true power. So with his passing, does anything actually change in Iran?

SEPEHRI FAR: So it's important to understand the repressive machinery that has been built over the past four decades goes beyond the power of the presidency. It doesn't mean the president is without power, but other entities - including the judiciary, the parliament, supreme leader - controlling many of the major state institutions that direct policy all contribute significantly to policymaking. In order for things to change in any meaningful way, the first step would be to hold an election that is fair, or at least in some foreseeable version competitive, but what we have been seeing over the past two decades is how the Guardian Council, which is in charge of vetting the candidate, is leading the way in shrinking the very limited space available for political competition.

FADEL: If an election that is seen as really fair doesn't happen, what does it mean for the future of the Iranian ruling class? With the inflation, with the protests, what would the future look like?

SEPEHRI FAR: I'm afraid more of the same. Iranian authorities are facing mounting difficulty in delivering in terms of the popular and public's expectation, economically as well as other areas, and there has been a lot of frustration and, as you mentioned, popular dissent against the very repressive rule. And instead of prioritizing a different approach, it seems that the No. 1 priority has been keeping a chokehold on dissent, on peaceful dissent at all forms, in order to rule. It is very difficult to see how that would lead to real change and major improvement and reduce any of the polarization and frustration that the general public have with the ruling class.

FADEL: Tara Sepehri Far is a researcher focused on Iran at Human Rights Watch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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