Saturday, June 22, 2024

Who was Iran’s deceased president Ebrahim Raisi?

After an hours-long search and rescue operation, authorities and the state media of Iran, on Monday morning, officially declared the death of its president Ebrahim Raisi.

A helicopter he was travelling in with other senior officials, crashed and went down in the country’s East Azerbaijan province while crossing mountain terrain in heavy fog.

Raisi, along with the Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian and other officials were on their way back from a visit to the northwest of Iran near the Azerbaijan border on Sunday.

Iran’s state media confirmed that all passengers onboard the helicopter had died in the crash.

The 63-year-old hardline political leader and religious cleric of Iran having close ties with both the religious elite and the judiciary, had long been regarded as the natural successor to the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Being a popular presence in national politics, Raisi first contested for the presidency in 2017 but failed, and was eventually elected in 2021. 

Early life of Raisi

At the age of 15, Raisi’s early education began at the iconic Islamic seminary at Qom, where the political giants of Iran, including Khomeini were nurtured.

After rigorous training over several years under the guidance of prominent scholars, he was appointed as a prosecutor during his early 20s.

After working in many cities, he went to the capital Tehran to take up the role of deputy prosecutor.

In 1983, he married Jamileh Alamolhoda, the daughter of Mashhad’s Imam Ahmad Alamolhoda, and the couple had two daughters.

During the 1980s, Iran witnessed a severe crackdown on political dissidents. For five months in 1988, Raisi was part of a committee supervising the executions of thousands of political prisoners.

His role in the violent suppression of dissent made him unpopular among the Iranian opposition and led to the United States imposing sanctions on him. 

After the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he was appointed prosecutor of Tehran in 1989.

Rise to prominence 

The prominence he gained under Khomeini’s leadership increased with the arrival of Ayatollah Khamenei, the successor. Over time, Raisi was raised through the ranks, and he became the chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi, the biggest religious endowment in Mashhad, on March 7, 2016.

Raisi had successfully maintained strong credentials in the religious establishment, owing to which, both the late Khomeini as well as Khamenei had conferred on him several powerful titles.

Apart from religious circles and the ruling elite, his relations were spread across all branches of government, military and legislative.

In the least competitive election Iran had held since 1997, Raisi ascended to the presidency in 2021. Notably, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had made all the arrangements to prevent a serious fight by disqualifying reformists and centrist conservatives. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former president with a complex relationship with Khamenei was also barred from the contest.

Critics argue that Raisi was chosen because he could never be a serious rival to Khamenei. When he was defeated by then-president Hassan Rouhani in 2017, many pointed out the lack of charisma in Raisi.

The same qualities made him the potential candidate to replace Khamenei, after the latter’s death.

Many political observers predicted that Raisi would be a weak supreme leader, allowing the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and other wings of the state to function independently. As a result, the regime would be able to exercise undisputed authority.

Presidential tenure

Raisi’s tenure was marred by public anger over the economic crisis, largely due to US sanctions and what critics note as the prioritisation of defence over domestic issues.

In late 2022, protests erupted after the custodial death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by the morality police for alleged non-compliance with the country’s mandatory hijab rules.

The agitations came to an end in mid-2023 after some 500 people were killed in the counter-action led by the security forces, according to foreign human rights organisations. 

Triggered by the US’s stance towards the JCPOA ( Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the failure of other signatories to save the pact, Raisi announced that Iran was stepping up its nuclear programme, but that it was not interested in a bomb.

He had also led Iran through a standoff with Israel as the two countries fought over Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza which began last October.

Iran has outrightly condemned Israel’s brutal assault on Palestinian civilians, along with its regional allies in the so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel and its Western allies.

Iran has maintained a close relationship with Syria for years, and the country’s proxy militias backed President Bashar al-Assad, who had ordered a violent crackdown on peaceful protests in 2011. Since then, throughout the 13-year-long civil war and Assad’s genocidal onslaught against Sunni civilians, Iran is said to be complicit in the long list of massacres and other crimes committed. 

Tehran has expanded its influence in Syria while the allied Lebanese group Hezbollah has also bolstered Assad’s forces.

The rivalry between Iran and Israel has also found a battleground in  Syria, where Israel has launched multiple strikes over the years. 

The Iranian consular building in Damascus was attacked in an Israeli strike in early April, killing seven people including a top commander and his deputy.

On April 15, Iran launched a counterattack causing minor damage to Israel that involved more than 120 ballistic missiles, 170 drones and more than 30 cruise missiles with the majority of them intercepted outside Israel’s borders. 

Raisi’s death and Iran’s political future

Raisi belongs to a very particular class of Iran’s political elite. It is worth noting here that the circles surrounding the Mashhad-based leader are extremely ambitious. Many conservatives from outside the Mashhad’s regional cadre worry that after Khamenei’s eventual death, a “Mashhad clique” might climb up to the top of the regime. 

Several politicians have also been looking for an opportunity in Raisi’s passivity, to upgrade their political profiles. These opponents regarded Raisi’s weak presidency as a chance to gain political prominence at the expense of more seasoned conservatives.

Raisi’s passing would change the distribution of power among various factions in the Islamic Republic. The Iranian constitution dictates that the vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, would take over as president and the new elections must be called within 50 days by a council made up of Mokhber, the parliamentary speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and the head of the judiciary, Ghollamhossein Mohseni Ezhei.

Since the speaker Qalibaf’s ambitious nature is known to all, sources suggest he would most probably run for the presidency. His long tenure as mayor of Tehran (2005-2017) was marked by both a degree of competence and quite a bit of corruption. Nevertheless, as a former commander in the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War, he will likely garner substantial support from within its ranks. 

If Qalibaf succeeds in a hastily organised presidential election, given his deep links to power structures in Iran, Khamenei would be unhappy with the presidency passing to a technocrat accused of corruption, without proper Islamist credentials.


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