Iranian president Raisi, a hard-liner with supreme leader’s backing, dies at 63

FILE - Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was traveling in a helicopter in northwestern Iran when it had to make a hard landing, according to state media. AP/PTI(AP05_20_2024_000149A) (AP)
FILE - Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was traveling in a helicopter in northwestern Iran when it had to make a hard landing, according to state media. AP/PTI(AP05_20_2024_000149A) (AP)

Summary

Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash in northwestern Iran hours after meeting Azerbaijan’s leader.

Ebrahim Raisi, who died on Sunday, rose to power as Iran’s eighth president, overseeing the country’s worsening relationship with the West and a harsh crackdown on civil rights at home during the largest protest movement in decades. He was 63.

Raisi was traveling in a helicopter in northwestern Iran when it had to make a hard landing, according to state media.

Raisi, a conservative cleric and decadeslong confidant of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, came to power in the 2021 elections. His victory came after moderate and liberal forces were sidelined and marked the consolidation of anti-Western hard-liners in the Islamic Republic.

Raisi took office as a political novice. Iran’s previous presidents had longstanding political ambitions and pursued their own agenda while in office. By contrast, Raisi was largely seen as a proxy for Khamenei.

Raisi didn’t serve in the military during Iran’s eight-year long war with Iraq in the 1980s, another contrast to some of his predecessors. Instead, he had a long career in the judicial system, including as a prosecutor, during which time he earned a reputation as a hard-liner with little patience for political dissent. Before becoming president, he was known to Iranians for his role in a 1988 commission that condemned thousands of political prisoners to death.

“I doubt too many Iranians will mourn his passing," said Abbas Milani, the director of the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies at Stanford University. “During his presidency the economy fell to new lows and the killing machine continued unabated."

Raisi was born into a clerical family near the city of Mashhad, considered one of the holiest cities in the world by Shia Muslims because of a shrine there. He joined an Islamic seminary at the age of 15. In the early 1980s, he married Jamileh Alamolhoda, the daughter of a powerful cleric that heads Friday prayer, the main weekly religious service, in Mashhad. She later earned a doctorate in philosophy and now teaches at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran.

As a young man, Raisi studied in the early 1990s under Khamenei and never strayed far from the leader’s positions. In return, Khamenei rewarded his protégé with a series of promotions. In 2016, he bestowed considerable power upon Raisi by appointing him steward of the Astan Quds Razavi charity, worth billions of dollars and central to the supreme leader’s business interests. When Raisi lost his first attempt at the presidency in 2017, Khamenei instead appointed him head of the powerful judiciary.

Raisi’s close relationship with Khamenei, more than 20 years his senior, led some to believe that he was being groomed to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader.

As president, Raisi helped steer Iran away from diplomacy with the West. While his predecessor signed an international nuclear deal with world powers, he took a more confrontational stance with foreign countries, including Israel. His government also strengthened ties with China and Russia, as part of Iran’s pivot to the east.

He had close relations with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which for more than a decade has expanded Iran’s military footprint abroad, including by propping up militias near the border with Israel, and achieved unprecedented financial and political power at home.

Raisi’s government oversaw an intensified crackdown on Iranians, including during the nationwide 2022 protests, triggered by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating the country’s Islamic dress code.

Raisi also presided over mass imprisonments of journalists, political activists and dual citizens, including Americans. Under Raisi, Iran also stepped up detentions of foreign nationals, including several Europeans who were held for years without a fair and free trial, according to Western governments. Previous governments had mostly imprisoned dual citizens with Iranian passports.

“Raisi was more of an apparatchik than a visionary leader," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, author of an encyclopedia on Iranian politics, and the vice provost and dean of College of Arts, Sciences, and Education at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

“Among his notable accomplishments were the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia," Boroujerdi said. “However, his administration’s brutal suppression of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ movement in 2022, strict enforcement of hijab laws, support for Russia in the war against Ukraine, and conflicts with Israel cast a long shadow over his presidency."

For ordinary Iranians, however, the most lasting legacy of Raisi’s tenure will perhaps be the deepening economic hardship, amplified by Iran’s growing isolation and Western sanctions, which sank millions of families into deep poverty, destitution and unemployment.

Many Iranians, particularly young people in the cities or members of the country’s ethnic minorities, will also remember his government for its crackdown on political dissent and its choking of freedom of expression and social liberties. He further undermined trust in authorities with his government playing down the Covid-19 outbreak in the beginning of the pandemic, which hit Iran hard earlier than most countries.

Raisi’s 2021 victory was largely the result of a historically low turnout of 48.8%—a sign of divisions within Iranian society and a reflection of widespread apathy among Iranians and discontent with the lack of real choice in the vote.

Under Raisi, that apathy has grown. The parliamentary vote earlier this year saw another record low turnout.

Raisi is survived by his wife and two children.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com

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