Ebrahim Raisi obituary: Brutal ideologue linked to Iran’s most repressive moments

Devoted upholder of religious rule reinforced strict social rules as president and sought greater ties with China and Russia

Born: December 14th, 1960

Died: May 19th, 2024

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s president and a top contender to succeed the nation’s supreme leader has died in a helicopter crash aged 63.

A conservative Shia Muslim cleric who had a hand in some of the most brutal crackdowns on opponents of the Islamic Republic, Raisi was a protege of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a devoted upholder of religious rule in the country.

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Raisi’s presidency was shaped by two big events: the 2022 nationwide uprising, led by women and girls, demanding the end to the Islamic Republic’s rule and the government’s brutal crushing of that movement; and the current Middle East war with Israel, with which it has a long history of clandestine attacks.

As president, Raisi did not set the country’s nuclear or regional policy. But he inherited a government that was steadily expanding its regional influence through a network of proxy militia groups and a nuclear program that was rapidly advancing to weapons-grade uranium enrichment levels.

Raisi endorsed and supported these policies and viewed them as essential for Iran to maintain its influence in the region and to exercise leverage over the West.

His death came as a years-long shadow war became one of direct confrontation in the wake of Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the October 7th Hamas attacks on Israel.

Raisi was born in the northeastern city of Mashhad to a family of clerics, and he studied at the country’s famous seminary in Qom before participating as an 18-year-old in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which deposed Iran’s shah. Just two years later, Raisi became a judge in the newly created Islamic Republic, beginning a steady ascent to the top of Iranian politics.

Like Khamenei and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Raisi donned a cleric’s black turban, one that is reserved for “sayyids”, or people who trace their lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad.

The issue of succession in Iran has become more pressing because Khamenei is 85 and frail. The selection of the next supreme leader is an opaque process of political rivalries and jockeying. Under the constitution an elected body of clerics called the Assembly of Experts picks the supreme leader.

Raisi was viewed as one of the top contenders for that role and was favoured by the hardline faction, as was Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, an influential cleric who helps run his father’s office. Raisi’s death essentially paves the path for the younger Khamenei to succeed his father.

“He was not someone exuding charisma. His speeches were not motivating people to the streets. He was executing policy,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House. “Above all, he was a regime insider. He was an ideologue who worked within the system and through the system.”

Raisi’s supporters, including conservative pundits on state media, praised him for reimposing strict religious and social rules, being intolerant of dissent and turning Iran’s policies away from the West toward more engagement with Russia and China.

In 2016-2019, Raisi was at the helm of Astan Quds Razavi, a powerful multibillion-dollar religious conglomerate under the control of Khamenei and believed to be one of his most significant sources of wealth. In 2019 Raisi became the head of Iran’s judiciary, and during his tenure he oversaw some of the most brutal crackdowns on dissent. At least 500 people were killed during nationwide demonstrations in November 2019 in response to a spike in fuel prices. The judiciary arrested activists, journalists, lawyers and dual national citizens.

He became president in 2021 in an election that was widely seen as orchestrated to ensure his victory.

Raisi campaigned as an anti-corruption candidate but took up the presidency under a cloud of condemnation by government opponents and international rights groups. Rights groups highlighted Raisi’s background as a member of a four-person panel that ordered the execution of 5,000 political dissidents in 1988 without trials at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Raisi has not denied being part of the panel and said in a speech that he was a junior official appointed to the role by the supreme leader at the time. “We lost a generation of political minds and activists who could have been important players in Iranian society,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Raisi, he said, played a hand in several of the most repressive moments of Iranian history, in particular the crackdowns on antigovernment protests in 2009 and 2022.

Raisi took power three years after Donald Trump, as president, withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. After the United States exited the deal, Trump reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, hitting the country’s oil sales and banks. A year later, after Iran failed to reap the benefits of the nuclear deal, it returned to enriching uranium at a near weapons-grade level.

Raisi took office promising to pursue a “resistance diplomacy”, meaning a defiance of Western powers but an openness to negotiations, particularly with the United States, to return to the nuclear deal and to seek the removal of sanctions. But months of negotiations fell through in 2021, and no deal has been reached with the Biden administration.

One of Raisi’s most important foreign policy achievements as president was one that had long eluded his predecessors: the restoration of ties with Iran’s long-time regional adversary, Saudi Arabia. In 2023 the two nations signed a deal in Beijing to re-establish diplomatic relations. Although largely symbolic, the agreement was seen as key to defusing their regional rivalry.

Raisi prioritised forging closer relations with Russia and China and pivoting away from the West, saying that Iran could not trust the United States and Europe after the collapse of the nuclear deal. Raisi’s government reached a sweeping 25-year economic, security and military deal with China: Iran agreed to sell Beijing discounted oil in exchange for $400 billion investments in Iran by Chinese companies in a wide range of sectors.

He also travelled to Moscow frequently to meet his Russian counterpart, president Vladimir Putin, and they deepened security and military relations. Iran has sold drones to Russia, which has used them in its war in Ukraine, although Raisi has denied this role.

Raisi’s impact on domestic policy during his presidency has been felt far more deeply, and his legacy is likely to be a contested one. During his rule the country suffered severe economic downturns, driven by international sanctions and high unemployment.

“He left the country’s economy in ruins, and it has become more repressive,” said Sina Azodi, a lecturer on Iran at George Washington University. “Iran was never democratic or free but, since 2021, political repression has increased. No voice of dissent is tolerated.”

Raisi also oversaw a brutal crackdown on antigovernment protests that erupted in 2022 after the death of a 21-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, while she was in the custody of Iran’s morality police. Her death set off a wave of protests led by women who took off their headscarves and called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

After many Iranian women defied the mandatory hijab rule and appeared in public for more than a year without covering their hair, Raisi announced this spring that he was going to reinforce the hijab rule. His government dispatched the morality police back on the streets in April and many arrests of women turned violent.

Raisi is survived by his wife, Jamileh Alamolhoda, a university professor of philosophy and education and daughter of an ultra hardline influential cleric, Ahmad Alamolhoda. The couple have two daughters and at least one grandchild.

The New York Times

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