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As I write these words, videos of fireworks flash across my screen of exultant Iranians celebrating the death Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is now confirmed dead from Sunday’s helicopter crash in the mountainous terrain of northwestern Iran.

For the last 45 years, Iran has been under the suffocating grip of a Shia theocracy. Ebrahim Raisi has been a devoted acolyte of the hardline ruler, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi, who came from a poor, ultra-religious family from Mashhad, never presented a political threat to the supreme leader, who was therefore happy to have his lackluster loyalist serve as his presidential lackey.

In 1988, Mr. Raisi was the presiding judge over cases involving more than 5,000 Iranians who were quickly sentenced to be executed. Trials were known to have lasted only a few minutes, without any semblance of habeas corpus. Raisi was clearly anxious to empty the prison cells to make room for new dissidents. Not only did Raisi issue the death decrees himself, but he was so enthusiastic to see them carried out that he personally went to “Execution Square” to witness the hangings.

Gabriel Noronha, former special advisor for Iran at the State Department from 2019 to 2020 had written for Tablet Magazine, “Raisi’s victims were loaded by forklifts in groups of six onto cranes and hanged every 30 minutes. One of the few ‘spared’ was a woman who was taken to a torture chamber instead of to the crane on account of her pregnancy. She was repeatedly lashed and tortured by several men, and later said she remembered each of their faces, which were etched in her mind. She could not forget that of one particularly young and callous man: Ebrahim Raisi.”

This has been a particularly blood-drenched regime. According to Amnesty International, Iran executed 853 people in 2023. Iranian Human Rights has counted 223 since January, with another 50 in May. In periods of instability, the rate of executions is only intensified. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which was formed shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, is responsible for maintaining internal security and keeping a watchful eye over the population.

Shortly after the Revolution, the draconian “hijab” laws were first introduced, mandating that a woman’s hair, body shape, arms, legs, and ankles be hidden while in public. After the brutal September 2022 arrest and accidental killing of Mahsa Jina Amini, by the “morality police” for the “crime” of having a bit of hair revealed from beneath her hijab, a storm of protest broke out in. Demonstrations in 30 of the 31 provinces of Iran resulted in the arbitrary murder of 537 people, including 71 children and adolescents, at the hands of the regime. Tens of thousands of Iranians have been arrested, raped, and tortured during this brutal crackdown.

But despite this repression, thousands upon thousands of videos jubilantly celebrating Raisi’s death surfaced in Iran, according to well-known London based Iranian journalist and human rights activist Vahid Beheshti.

Ayatollah Khamenei has declared five days of mourning and elevated the equally hardline First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber to serve as interim president. An election is expected within 50 days, although no one harbors the illusion that it will be “free and fair.”

As we have seen throughout history, when rigid and autocratic regimes are threatened, crackdowns on their dissident population become even more brutal. This also holds true for their paranoia of their self-inflicted enemies, “the Great Satan” (the United States), and the “Minor Satan” (Israel). Iran, which never allows a good conspiracy theory to go ignored, might well lash out against these two nations, adding even more instability to an already destabilized Middle East. Of course that instability largely comes at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist proxies.

Fasten your seatbelts. Turbulent waters may lie ahead.

Sarah N. Stern is Founder and President of the Endowment Truth, EMET, a foreign policy think tank and policy institute specializing in the Middle East.

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Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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