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Who was Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's late president?

Youhanna Najdi
May 20, 2024

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. He played a crucial role in Iran over the past four decades, with human rights groups saying he was responsible for thousands of deaths.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi looking on, sitting next to the Iranian flag
Raisi had been considered as one of the most prominent candidates to become the next supreme leader of the Islamic RepublicImage: Iranian Presidency/AFP

President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, has played a crucial role in Iran for decades and was even seen as a front-runner to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran's supreme leader.

Born in 1960 into a strictly religious family in the country's second-largest city, Mashhad, Raisi underwent extensive theological training at Qom religious seminary at the young age of 15.

Rising through the ranks of power

Raisi was 18 years old when the Islamic Republic was established after the 1979 revolution, and rapidly ascended through the ranks of power. He first was appointed prosecutor general of Karaj, a suburb of Tehran, and eventually served as deputy prosecutor for all of the capital.

Ebrahim Raisi as a young man
Raisi was a stern supporter of the 1979 revolution and rapidly rose through the ranks of powerImage: donya-e-eqtesad.com/

Following the death of Iran's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Raisi was appointed prosecutor of Tehran.

Member of Iran's 'death commission'

In 1988, due to internal political instability and the Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini ordered a brutal crackdown on dissidents and political prisoners.

Khomeini appointed Raisi to a committee responsible for deciding whether prisoners were disloyal to the government and should be executed. According to human rights organization Amnesty International, at least 5,000 political prisoners were executed based on the decisions made by that committee.

This committee is referred to as the "death commission" by many opponents of the Islamic Republic, and Raisi was known as one of the main human rights violators due to his involvement in it. It also led to the United States imposing sanctions on the future president.

Iranian president, foreign minister killed in crash

Moving into key judicial positions

Following Khamenei's ascension to the position of Iran's second supreme leader in 1989, Raisi moved higher within Iran's judicial system.

After his tenure as prosecutor in Tehran, he served as the head of the country's inspection organization for a decade, followed by a 10-year period as the prosecutor general of the Special Court for the Clergy in Iran.

Ali Khamenei and Ebrahim Raisi
Raisi (right) was one of Ali Khamenei's close confidantsImage: leader.ir

During his tenure as the first deputy to the chief justice from 2004 to 2014, Raisi played a pivotal role in the suppression of dissidents following the unrest that developed after the 2009 presidential election.

Raisi was a member of the Assembly of Experts from 2007 to his death, a council to select a successor for the supreme leader after his death. He was one of Khamenei's confidants, and as a result, was appointed in 2016 to oversee the shrine of the 8th Shiite Imam in Mashhad by Khamenei's directive. In this position, he had significant control over substantial financial resources.

Elected president in 2021

Raisi participated as a candidate in the 2017 presidential election, where he intensely criticized incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, and 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a nuclear agreement between Iran and Western countries. However, he ended up losing to Rouhani.

But he remained influential, with Khamenei appointing Raisi as the head of the judiciary in the Islamic Republic in February 2019.

Ebrahim Raisi (left) and former President Hassan Rouhani stand side by side, wearing COVID masks
Raisi (left) easily beat former President Hassan Rouhani in the 2021 electionImage: Iranian Presidency/dpa/picture alliance

In 2021, Raisi once again entered the presidential election, and in the weeks leading up to the vote his most remarkable opponents were disqualified. With Rouhani unable to run again due to term limits and a voter turnout of slightly below 50%, Raisi secured a landslide victory.

Suppression of 'Women, Life, Freedom' protests, support for Hamas

Raisi's presidency lasted less than three years. During his term, the "Women, Life, Freedom" protest movement was brutally suppressed across the country, resulting in the death of at least 500 people. Thousands were arrested and seven people were executed for their roles in the protests.

A UN fact-finding mission concluded in March 2024 that Iran had committed crimes against humanity during the crackdown, including murder, torture and rape.

Raisi also showed support for the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023. During his presidency, Iran directly attacked Israel for the first time on April 15, 2024 with more than 120 ballistic missiles, 170 drones and more than 30 cruise missiles. The attack was a reaction to a strike on the Iranian consulate building in Damascus in early April, which killed seven people including a top commander and his deputy.

Raisi held a significant position within Iran's political structure, leading many to consider him, along with Mojtaba Khamenei, the 55-year-old son of Ali Khamenei, as the most prominent candidates to become the next supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer