Obituary | Ebrahim Raisi (1960-2024): Iranian president who confronted the West

Ebrahim Raisi, the ultraconservative cleric whose term as Iran’s president was marked by a mass uprising and an increasingly aggressive stance toward the West, has died after a helicopter crash. He was 63.

The president’s helicopter crashed in the northwest of the country on May 19, state media said. His death, along with that of Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian who was traveling with him, was confirmed on May 20 by the semi-official Mehr news agency. The news comes as Iran grapples with internal dissent and its relations with the rest of the world.

Raisi, who won the 2021 election to become the country’s eighth president, took office amid an economic crisis caused by the US withdrawal from a historic nuclear deal and West Asia’s worst COVID-19 outbreak . Raisi, first a cleric, once kissed the Koran, the Islamic holy book, before the United Nations and spoke more like a preacher than a statesman when he addressed the world.

Favorite to succeed Ayatollah

Although he had little influence over Iran’s key institutions, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, he was widely seen in Iran as a favorite to eventually succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is in his mid-80s. His death removes the only serious rival of Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, to take the top job.

Raisi’s death comes at a time of unrest in West Asia, centered on Israel’s war against Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza. The war, sparked by Hamas’ attack on Israel in October 2023, has sparked violence across the region. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have attacked US bases, the Houthis in Yemen have shot at commercial ships in the Red Sea, and Lebanese Hezbollah has launched missiles into Israel almost daily. Iran and Israel attacked each other directly for the first time in April.

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Raisi won the presidency with record low turnout in a poll that largely excluded reformers and veteran politicians. He took office promising to end efforts to build trade ties with the West and focus instead on developing ties with China and Russia. His presidency ended a period when the State Department was led by multilingual diplomats who favored better relations with the US and stronger trade with Europe.

He was born on December 14, 1960 in the northeastern city of Mashhad, one of the holiest places in Shia Islam. His father died when he was five years old and he attended several Islamic seminaries as a child before becoming a prosecutor in Karaj, a city in northern Iran, in his early 20s. He was married to Jamileh Alamolhoda, the daughter of an ultra-conservative cleric, and together they had two daughters.

Establishment of the hardliners

Raisi first ran for president in 2017 and lost to Hassan Rouhani, the relatively moderate incumbent. Rouhani played a central role in the nuclear deal that former US President Donald Trump jettisoned in 2018. During his subsequent rise to the presidency and supported by the highest levels of Iran’s religious and military establishment, Raisi’s election signified all of the country’s state institutions and instruments of power. were in the hands of hardliners.

With Iran’s economy battered by years of sanctions, Raisi vowed to improve things when he finally came to power. Instead, Iran’s currency has fallen to successive lows against the dollar and the country faces mounting pressure to step up cooperation with U.N. inspectors of its nuclear program or face diplomatic censure followed by a possible referral to the UN Security Council.

Raisi was sanctioned in 2019 by the US, which cited his role in human rights abuses over many decades. In 2018, Amnesty International accused him of being a member of a “death commission” that forcibly disappeared and executed thousands of political dissidents in the late 1980s.

Turbulent times

During his time in office, Iran was gripped by some of the most widespread and violent protests in the history of the Islamic Republic. Following the death of a young woman in police custody shortly after being arrested for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code, the protests were brutally suppressed.

Iran resumed diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia in 2023 after a seven-year rift, in a deal brokered by China. Both countries were invited that year to join the BRICS group of emerging countries, although so far only Iran has officially become a member.

Raisi also sought to strengthen ties with China by visiting the country in 2023 and meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping. Iran has supported Russia in its war in Ukraine, supplying drones and participating in the construction of new shipping and rail routes in an effort to weaken sanctions.

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The war in Gaza soared regional tensions and a series of escalations led to Tehran firing hundreds of missiles and rockets directly into Israel in April 2023. In a speech on May 19, Raisi emphasized Iran’s support for the Palestinians, a core issue of the war. its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“We believe that Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world, and we are convinced that the people of Iran and Azerbaijan always support the people of Palestine and Gaza and hate the Zionist regime,” Raisi said.

Vice President Mokhber replaces Raisi ahead of early elections

Iran’s first vice president Mohammad Mokhber is expected to assume the presidency following the death of Ebrahim Raisi as the country prepares for early elections. Iran’s constitution stipulates that the first vice president takes over “in the event of the death, resignation, resignation, absence or illness of the president for more than two months.”

Vice President Mohammad Mokhber in September 2023. Iran’s first vice president Mokhber is expected to assume the presidency after the death of Ebrahim Raisi. | Photo credit: Iranian Vice Presidency/AFP

Raisi was nearing the end of his first four-year term as president. Mokhber, 68, was appointed vice president when Raisi took office in August 2021.

Mokhber’s interim appointment requires the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state affairs. According to the constitution, presidential elections must be held within fifty days to choose a permanent successor. A council composed of the speaker of parliament, the head of the judiciary and the vice president will be charged with organizing the national vote.

Global response

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his condolences over Raisi’s sudden death. He posted on X (formerly Twitter): “Deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic death of Dr. Seyed Ebrahim Raisi, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His contribution towards strengthening bilateral ties between India and Iran will always be remembered. My sincere condolences to his family and the people of Iran. India stands with Iran in this time of sorrow.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif declared a day of mourning “as a mark of respect for President Raisi and his associates and in solidarity with brotherly Iran.” He posted on May the martyred souls rest in heavenly peace. The great Iranian nation will overcome this tragedy with its usual courage.”

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al-Thani condoled the death of Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. “Sincere condolences to the government and people of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian and the accompanying officials in the painful helicopter accident, asking God Almighty to have mercy and forgiveness on them and for their families with patience and comfort. We belong to Allah and to Him we will return,” he posted on X.

The Iranian-backed militant organization Hamas issued a statement expressing its “deepest condolences and solidarity” to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Iranian government and the Iranian people for “this immense loss.” It praised the late Iranian leaders for their support of the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel and expressed confidence that Iran’s “deep-rooted institutions” will enable the country to overcome “the consequences of this great loss.”

(with input from Bloomberg, AFP, Reuters and AP)