Iranian President dies: Raisi, 63, was gearing up to succeed supreme leader Khamenei

The head of state was known for his hardline stance on national protests and nuclear talks

By Reuters

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi died in a chopper crash. Photo: Reuters fIle
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi died in a chopper crash. Photo: Reuters fIle

Published: Mon 20 May 2024, 9:46 AM

Last updated: Mon 20 May 2024, 9:48 AM

Ebrahim Raisi, who died aged 63, rose through Iran's theocracy from hardline prosecutor to uncompromising president, overseeing a crackdown on protests at home and pushing hard in nuclear talks with world powers as he positioned himself to become the next supreme leader.

Raisi died when a helicopter carrying him back from a visit to the Azerbaijani border crashed in mountainous terrain, killing all aboard, a senior Iranian official said. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was among those killed.

Elected president in a closely controlled vote in 2021, Raisi took a tough stance in the nuclear negotiations, seeing a chance to win broad relief from US sanctions in return for only modest curbs on Iran's increasingly advanced technology.

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Iran's hardliners had been emboldened by the chaotic US military withdrawal from neighbouring Afghanistan and policy swings in Washington.

In 2018, then-US president Donald Trump had reneged on the deal Tehran had made with the six powers and restored harsh U.S. sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to progressively violate the agreement's nuclear limits.

Indirect talks between Tehran and US President Joe Biden's administration to revive the deal have stalled.

Raisi's hardline position was also evident in domestic politics. A year after his election, the mid-ranking cleric ordered tighter enforcement of Iran's "hijab and chastity law" restricting women's dress and behaviour.

Within weeks, a young Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody after being arrested by morality police for allegedly violating that law.

The resulting months of nationwide protests presented one of the gravest challenges to Iran's clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Hundreds of people were killed, according to rights groups, including dozens of security personnel who were part of a fierce crackdown on the demonstrators. "Acts of chaos are unacceptable," the president insisted.

Although a political novice, Raisi had full backing for the nuclear stance and the security crackdown from his patron, the strongly anti-Western Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei, rather than the president, has the final say in all major policies under Iran's dual political system, split between the clerical establishment and the government.

But Raisi's election victory, after heavyweight conservative and moderate rivals were disqualified by a hardline oversight body, brought all branches of power in Iran under the control of hardliners loyal to Khamenei and bolstered Raisi's chances of one day succeeding him as Supreme Leader.

However, the widespread protests against clerical rule and a failure to turn around Iran's struggling economy - hamstrung by Western sanctions and mismanagement - may have diminished his popularity at home.

Raisi was born in 1960 to a religious family in Iran's holy Shi'ite Muslim city of Mashhad. At age 5, he lost his father. Still, he followed in his footsteps to become a cleric.

As a young student at a religious seminary in the holy city of Qom, Raisi took part in protests against the Western-backed Shah in the 1979 revolution. Later, his contacts with religious leaders in Qom made him a trusted figure in the judiciary.


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