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The U.S. Should Sanction Iran’s Key Slush Fund and Its Brutal Custodian

Ebrahim Raisi runs a massive business conglomerate that helps Tehran suppress dissent at home and export terror abroad.

The U.S. Should Sanction Iran’s Key Slush Fund and Its Brutal Custodian

Tzvi Kahn
15th September 2018 - National Review

At first, he couldn’t identify the sound. But Amir Atiabi, an inmate in Iran’s Gohardasht Prison, was curious. Over the course of several nights in 1988, he recalled, “strange noises that sounded like the dropping of cooking-gas containers” reverberated from trucks in the jail’s loading dock. Each time, he marked the date on his calendar. On some days, the sound echoed through his cell as many as 50 to 55 times.

Eventually, he discovered the truth. One night, Atiabi said, he and his fellow prisoners “went to the end of the corridor to the shower room and toilettes and climbed up to see through the window what the hell this truck is doing in the middle of the night. We had never seen such a thing. Then we realized they were loading dead bodies onto the trucks.”

“After a while,” he added, “the noises would stop because when you put bodies on top of other bodies you won’t hear the noise anymore.”

Thirty years later, the systematic massacre of thousands of political dissidents remains the single bloodiest atrocity committed by the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979. However, the perpetrators have yet to face justice. One of them, in fact, former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, currently serves as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a massive business conglomerate with a real-estate portfolio worth an estimated $20 billion, which effectively functions as a slush fund for Iran’s supreme leader. Raisi helps generate the funds that enable Tehran to suppress dissent at home and export terror abroad. As a matter of justice and strategy, it’s long past time for Washington to sanction Raisi and Astan Quds Razavi.

In the summer of 1988, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sentencing regime opponents to death, declaring them “apostates of Islam” who “wage war on God.” In the months that followed, Iran established, in prisons throughout the country, panels known as Death Commissions. They decided who would live and who would die, usually on the basis of interrogations only several minutes in length. Raisi served on a four-member commission that presided over the slaughter of inmates in Evin Prison, Iran’s most notorious jail, as well as Gohardasht Prison.

In 2016, an audio recording from 1988 emerged of a meeting between Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a deputy and heir apparent to Khomeini, and Raisi and the other three members of the commission. In an extraordinary rebuke, Montazeri told the panel, “In my opinion, the greatest crime committed under the Islamic Republic, from the beginning of the Revolution until now, is this crime committed by you.” The commission members, he added, “will in the future be etched in the annals of history as criminals.” Khomeini later stripped Montazeri of his clerical rank and role as designated successor, while Raisi continued his rise.

Since the early 1980s, Raisi has served in multiple positions in Iran’s judiciary, which remains devoid of meaningful due process. As a prosecutor between 1980 and 1994, he routinely sought draconian punishments for political opponents of the regime. As a deputy chief justice from 2004 to 2014, he personally approved death penalties for scores of alleged offenders. On one occasion, he even lauded the amputation of a thief’s hand, calling it “divine punishment” and a “source of pride.” As the attorney general from 2014 to 2016, he presided over the prosecution of countless dissidents. Between 2004 and 2015, the number of executions gradually rose every year, from approximately 100 to nearly 1,000.

Nevertheless, though Raisi is well known in Iran, it wasn’t until he ran for president, in 2017, that he attained a measure of international prominence. The incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, wasted no time in attacking him for his role in the 1988 massacre, declaring that Iran’s people would “announce in this election that they don’t accept those who only knew executions and prison for 38 years.” In response, Raisi doubled down: His campaign page on the Telegram messaging service posted a video justifying the slaughter.

To be sure, Rouhani’s own record undermined his credibility: In 1988, he served as a member of Iran’s national security council, making him fully aware of and complicit in the bloodshed. Moreover, since Rouhani’s election as president in 2013, the United Nations has repeatedly criticized him for the pervasive human-rights violations under his watch. Still, Rouhani’s strategy appeared to work. Raisi lost the election after receiving only 38 percent of the vote.

Afterward, Raisi’s name largely faded from Western headlines. But today, he arguably occupies his most influential position yet in the regime. As the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, Raisi plays a key role in maintaining the financial empire that facilitates Tehran’s grip on power. The endowment presides over more than 100 businesses in a variety of fields, including car manufacturing, agriculture, financial services, construction, and oil and gas, many of which conduct business overseas. It also controls, on the border between Iran and Turkmenistan, a special economic zone that enables it to manage trade with central Asia.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.

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