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

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

Raisi, who won the election in 2021 to become the country’s eighth President, took office during an economic crisis brought on by the US withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal and the worst COVID-19 outbreak in West Asia. A cleric first, Raisi once kissed the Quran, the Islamic holy book, before the United Nations and spoke more like a preacher than a statesman when addressing the world.

Favourite to succeed Ayatollah

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

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

Raisi won the presidency on a record-low turnout in a poll that mostly excluded reformists and veteran politicians. He entered office pledging to end efforts to build trade ties with the West and instead focus on developing links with China and Russia. His presidency ended a period in which the foreign ministry was led by multilingual diplomats who favoured better relations with the US and stronger trade with Europe.

He was born on December 14, 1960, in the north-eastern city of Mashhad, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. His father died when he was 5 years old and he attended various Islamic seminaries as a child before becoming a public prosecutor in Karaj, a city in northern Iran, in his early 20s. He was married to Jamileh Alamolhoda, the daughter of an ultraconservative cleric, and together they had two daughters.

Establishment of the hardliners

Raisi first stood for the presidency in 2017, losing to Hassan Rouhani, the relatively moderate incumbent. Rouhani was central to the nuclear accord that former US President Donald Trump jettisoned in 2018. In his subsequent rise to the presidency and backed by the highest levels of Iran’s religious and military establishment, Raisi’s election meant all of the country’s state institutions and levers of power were in the hands of hardliners.

With Iran’s economy battered by years of sanctions, Raisi promised to improve matters when he finally took office. Instead, Iran’s currency has plummeted to successive lows against the dollar and the country is facing mounting pressure to boost cooperation with UN inspectors of its nuclear programme, or face diplomatic censure followed by a potential referral to the UN Security Council.

Raisi was sanctioned by the US in 2019, which cited his role in human rights violations 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 Islamic Republic’s history. Triggered by the death of a young woman who had died in police custody shortly after being arrested for allegedly violating Islamic dress codes, the protests were brutally suppressed.

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

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

The Gaza war sent regional tensions soaring and a series of tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at Israel in April 2023. In a speech on May 19, Raisi emphasised Iran’s support for Palestinians, a centrepiece of 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,” said Raisi.

Vice President Mokhber to replace Raisi ahead of snap election

Iran’s first Vice President, Mohammad Mokhber, is expected to assume the presidency after Ebrahim Raisi’s death as the country gears up for early elections. The Iranian constitution stipulates that the first Vice President take over “in the event of the President’s death, dismissal, resignation, absence or illness for more than two months”.

Raisi was nearing the end of his first four-year term as President. Mokhber, 68, was appointed Vice President as 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 word in all state affairs. Presidential elections to pick a permanent successor are to be held within 50 days, according to the constitution. A council comprising the parliament speaker, the head of the judiciary, and the Vice President are to be tasked with organising the national vote.

Global reaction

President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev offered a letter of condolences for Raisis’s death in a fatal accident: “We were deeply shocked by the news of the tragic loss suffered by our friendly and brotherly the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its people — the fatal helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and other accompanying individuals.

In the person of President Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian people lost a prominent statesman who served his country with dedication and loyalty all his life. His cherished memory will forever live in our hearts.

On this sorrowful day, I pray to Almighty Allah to grant patience and fortitude to the friendly and brotherly people of Iran. We share in your grief and extend our deepest condolences to you, the families and loved ones of those who perished, and to your entire nation, on behalf of myself and the people of Azerbaijan.”

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 demise of Dr. Seyed Ebrahim Raisi, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His contribution to strengthening India-Iran bilateral relationship will always be remembered. My heartfelt condolences to his family and the people of Iran. India stands with Iran in this time of sorrow.”

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif declared a day of mourning “as a mark of respect for President Raisi and his companions and in solidarity with brotherly Iran”. He posted on X: “I along with the government and people of Pakistan extend our deepest condolences and sympathies to the Iranian nation on this terrible loss. May the martyred souls rest in heavenly peace. The great Iranian nation will overcome this tragedy with customary courage.”

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al-Thani condoled the deaths 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 for mercy and forgiveness for them and for their families with patience and solace. We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return,” he posted on X.

Iran-backed militant outfit Hamas issued a statement, conveying its “deepest condolences and solidarity” to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Iranian government, and the Iranian people for “this immense loss.” It praised the deceased Iranian leaders for supporting the Palestinian cause and resistance against Israel and expressed confidence that Iran’s “deep-rooted institutions” will enable it to overcome “the repercussions of this great loss.”


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