Ebrahim Raisi | A hardline President who had the backing of Iran’s clerical establishment

Watch | Who was Ebrahim Raisi and what does his death mean for Iran?

Ebrahim Raisi held several important positions in Iran’s judicial system and his death will leave a vacuum in Iran’s religious-politico system.

Updated - May 21, 2024 06:33 pm IST

Published - May 20, 2024 12:29 pm IST

Ebrahim Raisi, like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wore a black turban, which means he traced his lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed. Before being elected President in November 2021, he was the chief of Iran’s judiciary. A close ally of Mr. Khamenei, Raisi, after his controversial election victory, helped the conservatives tighten their grip on Iran’s state and society, after an eight-year period of Hassan Rouhani, the architect of Iran’s failed nuclear deal with world powers.

As President, Mr. Raisi tightened crackdown at home, strengthened Iran’s ties with Russia and China and adopted a much more muscular foreign policy, which saw Tehran launching an unprecedented missile and drone attack towards Israel in April. He was seen as a potential successor to Mr. Khamenei, the most powerful man in the Islamic Republic. But such predictions did not last long.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s Foreign Minister and others have been found dead at the site of a helicopter crash on May 20. File

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s Foreign Minister and others have been found dead at the site of a helicopter crash on May 20. File | Photo Credit: AP

On May 19, President Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and a few other officials were killed in a helicopter crash in the Varzaghan region of East Azerbaijan province.

Raisi’s 2017 electoral defeat did not deter him

Raisi’s rise to the top echelons of the Islamic Republic was gradual. He contested the 2017 Presidential election, with backing from the clergy, but lost to Mr. Rouhani, who then secured a second term. But the electoral defeat did not deter Raisi. In 2019, he was appointed the Chief Justice. In the same year, he was named deputy chief of the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that will pick the next Supreme Leader when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei departs.

In the 2021 Presidential election, there were complaints that the establishment was clearly favouring Raisi. Mr. Rouhani, a popular figure among the reformists and moderates, was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term. Other prominent moderate candidates, former Parliament speaker Ali Larijani and outgoing Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, were excluded from running by the Guardian Council. The 12-member Council, which vets potential candidates, allowed only seven contestants — two low-key moderates and five hardliners — to run. Raisi was the only prominent figure on the list. Closer to the election, two more candidates dropped out, boosting Raisi’s chances. There were no surprises when the results were announced.

Born in 1960 in a village near the holy city of Mashhad, Raisi, as a teenager, studied in a Qom seminary. When Iran erupted against the rule of the Shah in the late 1970s, Raisi, like many other seminary students, liberals and leftwing activists, joined the revolution. After the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown and Iran became an Islamic Republic, Raisi began his judicial career as a prosecutor in the city of Karaj. He moved to the capital in 1985 after he was appointed a deputy prosecutor of Tehran. It was this time Raisi got the attention of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.

Raisi was a member of ‘death commission,’ set up to carry out executions

After the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Khomeini issued secret decrees condemning thousands of political prisoners (mostly members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a dissident group backed by Saddam Hussein that carried out attacks after Iran accepted a ceasefire, and supporters of leftist factions such as the Fedaian and the Tudeh Party) to death. Then a four-man commission, which is widely known as the “death commission”, was set up to carry out the executions. Raisi was reported to be a member of the commission. A 2019 U.S. Treasury Department release, which imposed sanctions on top Iranian officials, including Raisi, “for advancing domestic and foreign oppression”, states that “as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran, Raisi participated in a so-called ‘death commission’ that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.” According to rights groups, including Amnesty International which released a report on the killings in 1990, thousands were killed after sham trials. Iran has never acknowledged the killings. Raisi never talked about it publicly, even during his Presidential campaigns.

Raisi held important positions in Iran’s judicial system

Always a loyal ally of the establishment, Raisi held several important positions in Iran’s judicial system. From 2004 to 2014, he was the First Deputy Chief Justice. In 2014, he was named the Attorney-General of Iran, a position which he held until 2016. Then Mr. Khamenei appointed him to run the Astan-e Quds-e Razavi (Imam Reza charity foundation), which manages a wide network of businesses and endowments. These foundations, run largely on donations or assets seized during the 1979 revolution worth billions, operate directly under the Supreme Leader. When he was appointed to the foundation, Mr. Khamenei called Raisi a “trustworthy person with high-profile experience”, a rare praise from the Supreme Leader that fuelled speculations that the Ayatollah could be grooming him as a potential successor.

Raisi’s answer to Iran’s myriad problems was ‘maximum resistance’

Raisi assumed Presidency at a critical juncture for Iran. The country’s economy, battered by sanctions, was facing serious challenges. The nuclear deal, which promised removal of sanctions and economic prosperity, had fallen apart. Large-scale protests broke out across the country after Mahsa Amini, 22, died after she was arrested for not following the country’s strict hijab rules. Raisi backed a crackdown on the protests instead of caving in to pressure. Diplomacy took a backseat during his tenure as Iran stepped up its nuclear programme, started shipping weapons to Russia, and doubled down on its support for non-state militias across West Asia such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Shia Mobilisation Units. Maximum resistance was Raisi’s answer to the myriad problems Iran was facing. And in Iran’s clergy-dominated complex power theatre where traditionalists and moderates compete for power and influence, Raisi emerged as a strong President who has the backing of the clerical establishment.

Raisi’s death will cause vacuum in Iran’s politics

Raisi’s death will leave a vacuum in Iran’s religious-politico system. In recent years, Iran, unlike any other country, has lost several high profile figures. In January 2020, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a charismatic military commander, was assassinated by the U.S. in Baghdad in an air strike. In November that year, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in the outskirts of Tehran, reportedly by Israel. After the Hamas-Israel war began on October 7, 2023, Iran lost several senior military leaders, including Mohammed Reza Zahedi, who was in charge of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ operations in Syria and Lebanon. These losses pale in comparison with the death of the President and the Foreign Minister. This is the first time the Islamic Republic is losing a President, sitting or former, to such an accident.

While details are yet to emerge about the crash, the existing geopolitical tensions could fuel speculations about the accident. Iran has to quickly ascertain the reasons behind the crash, and put in place an orderly transition, which involves an election within weeks, so that the country’s normal operations would not be affected by the President’s death.

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