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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, protégé of the supreme leader, dies at 63 in a helicopter accident

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, protégé of the supreme leader, dies at 63 in a helicopter accident

 



Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi listens to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not pictured, during a joint news conference following their meeting at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, January 24, 2024. (AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, an uncompromising protégé of the country's supreme leader who helped oversee the mass executions of thousands in 1988 and later led the country as it enriched uranium at near weapons-grade levels and launched a major drone and missile attack on Israel, has died. He was 63 years old.

Raisi's sudden death, along with that of Iran's foreign minister and other officials in Sunday's helicopter crash in northwest Iran, came as Iran grapples with internal dissensions and in its relations with the rest of the world. Initially religious, Raisi embraced the Koran, the Islamic holy book, before the United Nations and spoke more like a preacher than a statesman when addressing the world.

Raisi, who lost a presidential election to relatively moderate incumbent President Hassan Rouhani in 2017, eventually came to power four years later in a vote carefully engineered by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to eliminate all major opposition candidate.

His arrival comes after the nuclear deal signed by Rouhani with world powers was left in tatters after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the deal, triggering years of renewed tensions between Tehran and Washington.

But while claiming to want to reenter the deal, Raisi's new administration has instead opposed international inspections, in part because of an alleged sabotage campaign by Israel against its nuclear program. Negotiations in Vienna to restore the agreement remained stalled during the first months of his government.

“Sanctions are the United States’ new way of waging war against the nations of the world,” Raissi told the United Nations in September 2021.

He added: “The policy of ‘maximum oppression’ is still in force. We want nothing more than what is rightfully ours.

Mass protests swept the country in 2022 after the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been arrested for not wearing a hijab, or headscarf, at the discretion of authorities. The months-long security crackdown following the protests killed more than 500 people and more than 22,000 others were arrested.

In March, a United Nations commission of inquiry concluded that Iran was responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.

Then came the war between Israel and Hamas in 2023, in which Iranian-backed militias targeted Israel. Tehran itself launched an extraordinary attack on Israel in April, during which hundreds of drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles were fired. Israel, the United States and their allies shot down the projectiles, but it showed how the shadow war between Iran and Israel had raged for years.

Khamenei appointed Raisi, a former Iranian prosecutor general, in 2016 to head the Imam Reza charitable foundation, which runs a conglomerate of companies and foundations in Iran. It is one of several bonyades, or charitable foundations, fueled by donations or property seized after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

These foundations do not publicly account for their spending and answer only to Iran's supreme leader. The Imam Reza charity, known as “Astan-e Quds-e Razavi” in Farsi, is considered one of the largest. Analysts estimate its value at tens of billions of dollars, as it owns almost half the land in Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city.

When appointing Raisi to the foundation, Khamenei called him “a trustworthy person with high-level experience.” This has led analysts to speculate that Khamenei could be grooming Raisi as a possible candidate to become Iran's third supreme leader, a Shiite cleric who has the final say on all state matters and serves as the country's commander-in-chief. .

Although Raïssi lost his 2017 campaign, he still received nearly 16 million votes. Khamenei appointed him to head Iran's internationally criticized justice system, long known for its closed-door trials of human rights activists and those with ties to the West. The US Treasury sanctioned Raisi in 2019 “for his administrative oversight of the executions of individuals who were minors at the time of their crime and for the torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment inflicted on prisoners in Iran, including amputations.”

In 2021, Raisi became the dominant figure in the election after a panel led by Khamenei disqualified candidates who posed the greatest challenge to his protégé. He won nearly 62% of the 28.9 million votes in this election, the lowest percentage turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. Millions of people stayed home and others canceled their ballots.

Raisi was defiant when asked at a news conference after his election about the 1988 executions, which saw new mock trials of political prisoners, activists and others, allegedly known as “death commissions”.

After Iran's then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire, members of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, heavily armed by Saddam Hussein, crossed the Iranian border from Iraq in a surprise attack. Iran has blunted its assault.

Trials began at this time, with defendants asked to identify themselves. Those who answered “mujahidin” were sent to their deaths, while others were questioned about their willingness to “clear minefields for the army of the Islamic Republic”, according to an Amnesty International report from 1990. International rights groups estimate that up to 5,000 people were executed. Raïssi was part of the commissions.

“I am proud to be a defender of human rights and the safety and comfort of people as a prosecutor wherever I am,” Raïssi said.

Born in Mashhad on December 14, 1960, Raisi was born into a family whose lineage dates back to Islam's prophet Muhammad, marked by the black turban he would later wear. His father died when he was 5 years old. He would enter the seminary in the holy Shiite city of Qom and later describe himself as an ayatollah, a high-ranking Shiite cleric.

He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

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