Iran helicopter crash: Who was Ebrahim Raisi? Protégé of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei

Ebrahim Raisi, a key figure in Iranian politics, died in a helicopter crash along with others in East Azerbaijan. Raisi's presidency was marked by tensions with the West and crackdowns on dissent.

Mausam Jha
First Published20 May 2024
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Iran's Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Iran’s Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS (via REUTERS)

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and other officials were found dead at the site of a helicopter crash on Monday, following an hours-long search through a foggy, mountainous area in the northwest of the country, state media reported.

Newswire AP reported that Raisi has long been regarded as a protégé of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a potential successor within the country's Shiite theocracy.

The news of the helicopter crash, which Iran's state media referred to as a “hard landing” on Sunday, has drawn renewed attention to Raisi, who was under sanctions from the US and other countries for his alleged role in the mass execution of prisoners in 1988.

Ebrahim Raisi's early life

Born in Mashhad on December 14, 1960, Raisi hails from a family with lineage tracing back to Islam's Prophet Muhammad, symbolized by the black turban he would eventually wear.

His father passed away when he was just 5 years old. He pursued education at a seminary in the Shiite holy city of Qom and later identified himself as an Ayatollah, signifying a high-ranking Shiite cleric.

Political journey

Following the Islamic revolution, he pursued a legal career as a prosecutor and moved to Tehran in the 1980s. During this period, amidst the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, Raisi served on a four-member committee that sentenced thousands of political prisoners, perceived as anti-national and supporters of Saddam Hussein, to death.

Raisi held positions such as deputy chief of the judiciary (2004-2014) and prosecutor-general.

In 2017, he emerged as the runner-up in the presidential election, which saw Hassan Rouhani securing his second term. Later, Raisi was appointed as the judiciary chief.

Also Read: ‘India stands with Iran in this time of sorrow,’ PM Modi, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar condole Ebrahim Raisi's death

In 2019, both the US and EU imposed sanctions on Raisi due to his human rights record, particularly concerning the executions in the 1980s and alleged crackdowns on anti-government protestors in 2009 and 2019.

Moreover, conservatives already held a significant majority in parliament after the 2020 election.

In 2021, Raisi ran again in an election in which Iran's vetting system disqualified all his significant opponents. He won nearly 62% of the 28.9 million votes cast, marking the lowest voter turnout percentage in the Islamic Republic's history. Millions of people stayed home, and many others voided their ballots.

Raisi remained defiant when questioned about the 1988 executions during a news conference following his election. These executions involved sham retrials of political prisoners, militants, and others by “death commissions” at the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

Also Read: Iran's Raisi says Israel must be brought to justice for 'usurpation' of Palestinian territories

According to a 1990 Amnesty International report, those who answered “mujahedeen” were sentenced to death, while others were questioned about their willingness to “clear minefields for the army of the Islamic Republic.”

International rights groups estimate that as many as 5,000 people were executed. Raisi served on the commissions.

In 2019, the US Treasury sanctioned Raisi “for his administrative oversight over the executions of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and the torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations.”

It further highlighted Raisi's involvement in the 1988 executions.

Iran's supreme leader's protégé

Iran is ultimately governed by its 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, as president, Raisi endorsed the country's enrichment of uranium to near-weapons-grade levels and impeded international inspectors as part of its standoff with the West.

Raisi also backed a massive assault on Israel in April, involving over 300 drones and missiles, in retaliation for an Israeli attack that killed Iranian generals at the country's embassy compound in Damascus, Syria. This incident escalated the yearslong shadow war between the two nations.

He also supported the country's security services as they cracked down on all dissent, including in the aftermath of the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini and the nationwide protests that followed.

(With inputs from agencies)

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