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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Iran’s Raisi: ultraconservative president close to supreme leader

After the news of his death, state television showed photos of Raisi with the voice of a man reciting the Quran in the background and footage of faithful praying in Raisi's home city.

Always piously dressed in a black turban and religious robe, Iran’s ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi took office during a tumultuous period of confrontation abroad and mass protest at home.

On Monday, the 63-year-old president was declared dead after his helicopter crashed a day earlier in a remote and fog-shrouded western mountain region while travelling back from East Azerbaijan province where he had inaugurated a dam project.

Read more: Iran vice president to replace Raisi ahead of snap election

After the news of his death, state television showed photos of Raisi with the voice of a man reciting the Qoran in the background and footage of faithful praying in Raisi’s home city.

Search and rescue operations went on for more than 15 hours after the crash, before the site was found and Raisi’s body was retrieved along with others who had died with him.

The Iranian president — whose career started in the years after the 1979 Islamic revolution and who is close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — took power in a 2021 election that was followed by turbulent years of protests and tensions.

Like Khamenei, Raisi has often spoken up defiantly as Iran, the biggest Shiite Muslim power, has been in a tense standoff with its declared arch foes the United States and Israel.

Raisi took power after an election in which more than half the electorate stayed away and several political heavyweights had been barred from standing.

Read more: Hamas mourns Raisi death, hails his ‘support for Palestinian resistance’

He succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement was a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that gave Iran relief from international sanctions.

Like other ultraconservatives, Raisi harshly criticised his predecessor’s camp after then-president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the nuclear pact in 2018 and reimposed punishing sanctions on Iran.

Raisi took the reins of a country in social and economic crisis.

After portraying himself as a corruption-fighting champion of the poor, Raisi announced austerity measures that caused a sharp increase in the price of some staples, triggering anger at the high cost of living.

Then, in late 2022, a wave of nationwide protests erupted following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini after her arrest for allegedly breaching Iran’s strict Islamic dress code for women.

In a landmark event in March 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia, long-time regional foes, announced a surprise deal that restored diplomatic relations.

But the Gaza war that broke out on October 7 between Israel and Hamas sent regional tensions soaring again, and tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at Israel last month.

Earlier on Sunday, Raisi emphasised Iran’s support for the Palestinians — a centrepiece of the country’s foreign policy since the Islamic revolution — declaring that “Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world”.

– Head of judiciary –

Born in 1960 in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, Raisi as young man, with a salt-and-pepper beard and thin glasses, studied theology and Islamic jurisprudence under Khamenei.

He married Jamileh Alamolhoda, an educational sciences lecturer at Tehran’s Shahid-Beheshti University. They have two daughters.

Aged just 20, in the wake of the Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed monarchy, Raisi was named prosecutor-general of Karaj next to Tehran.

He served as Tehran’s prosecutor-general from 1989 to 1994, deputy chief of the Judicial Authority for a decade from 2004, and then national prosecutor-general in 2014.

In 2016, Khamenei put Raisi in charge of a charitable foundation that manages the revered Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and controls a large industrial and property asset portfolio.

Three years later, the supreme leader appointed him head of the Judicial Authority, and Raisi was also a member of the assembly of experts that selects the supreme leader.

His black turban signifies direct descent from Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, and a few months after he became president, Iranian media started referring to him by the title of ayatollah in the Shiite clerical hierarchy.

Raisi has been on Washington’s sanctions blacklist for complicity in “serious human rights violations” — charges rejected as null and void by the authorities in Tehran.

For Iran’s exiled opposition and human rights groups, his name is a reminder of the mass executions of Marxists and other leftists in 1988, when Raisi was deputy prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran.

Asked in 2018 and again in 2020 about the executions, Raisi denied playing a role, even as he lauded an order he said was handed down by the Islamic republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to proceed with the purge.

When the “Green Movement” in 2009 rallied against populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s winning a disputed second term, Raisi was uncompromising.

“To those who speak of ‘Islamic compassion and forgiveness’, we respond: We will continue to confront the rioters until the end and we will uproot this sedition,” he pledged.