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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner who crushed dissent, dies at 63

In this handout image supplied by the Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is pictured at the Qiz Qalasi Dam, constructed on the Aras River on the joint borders between Iran and Azerbaijan. Raisi was seen as a potential successor to Iran's supreme leader.
Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
In this handout image supplied by the Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is pictured at the Qiz Qalasi Dam, constructed on the Aras River on the joint borders between Iran and Azerbaijan. Raisi was seen as a potential successor to Iran's supreme leader.

Updated May 20, 2024 at 15:40 PM ET

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner who was seen as a potential successor to the country's aging supreme leader, died in a helicopter crash, Iranian state media reported on Monday.

Iranian state-run media announced Raisi's death in a post on Monday, along with the deaths of Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and other government officials who were aboard the helicopter.

State-run media gave no immediate cause for the crash. However, the helicopter the group was traveling in crashed in foggy conditions in a mountainous area in the northwest of the country near the border with Azerbaijan. Raisi had taken part in a ceremony to inaugurate a dam with the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev.

Bad weather hindered rescuers in their attempts to find the downed helicopter.

As the son of a cleric from Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad, Raisi attended a seminary school from the age of 15 and took part in protests against the Western-backed Shah of Iran, who was toppled in the 1979 revolution that installed the theocratic regime under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Before becoming president in 2021, the ultraconservative had been the head of the judiciary.

A year after assuming the presidency, he ordered a crackdown on women's dress codes. That led to the arrest of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, whose headscarf had not properly covered her hair, in line with the country's "hijab and chastity" law. Amini's death in custody sparked nationwide protests that resulted in hundreds of deaths, according to human rights groups, and were seen as one of the most serious threats to the Islamic regime since it came to power in the 1979 revolution.

Since those protests died down, the regime has recently launched a new crackdown on women's dress codes, which human rights group Amnesty International has described as a "war on women."

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks to crowds gathered to protest in Tehran in support of Palestinians in Gaza on Oct. 18, 2023.
Atta Kenare / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks to crowds gathered to protest in Tehran in support of Palestinians in Gaza on Oct. 18, 2023.

He could have become the supreme leader

As a protege of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Raisi had been seen as a potential successor for the top position, along with Khamenei's son Mojtaba.

Wilson Center distinguished fellow Robin Wright, who has interviewed the last six presidents of Iran, said Raisi was expected to be reelected to a second term as president and oversee the transition process of a new supreme leader — if not assume the role himself.

"What makes his death particularly important is not about government today, but about the transition process with an aged and ailing supreme leader who will inevitably die in the next few years," Wright told NPR's Morning Edition.

During his tenure as president, Raisi also strengthened Iran's ties with China and Russia and openly blasted the U.S. government after it killedIranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike in 2020, Wright added.

"He was really the most hard-line president since the 1979 revolution," she said.

Raisi was known for his part in 1988 extrajudicial killings

The brutal repression of the protests was not the first time Raisi had been accused of ruthlessly crushing dissent. Rights groups have said that as a young prosecutor in 1988, he sat on what became known as "death committees" which ordered the execution of political prisoners.

Raisi sat on the panel in Tehran, which rights groups say ordered the execution of hundreds of enemies of the Islamic regime: Amnesty International estimates that nationwide, around 5,000 people were put to death.

"Raisi is a pillar of a system that jails, tortures and kills people for daring to criticize state policies," Hadi Ghaemi, the director of New York-based advocacy group the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), told Reuters.

Raisi was running for president in 2016 when a tape leaked of an important cleric talking of his role in the 1988 killings. Raisi lost the election a year later to Hassan Rouhani, a less hard-line candidate.

In 2019, when he was appointed head of the judiciary, the United States imposed sanctions on Raisi for human rights violations, including for the executions in the 1980s.

While the cause of Sunday's crash was not immediately known, Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on X that in "Iran's conspiratorial political culture few will believe Raisi's death was accidental."

Responses to Raisi's death come in from across the globe

Reactions to Raisi's death have been mixed, with some celebrating the end of the late president's rule, while others praised his legacy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Iran's acting president, Mohammad Mokhber, remembering Raisi as a "reliable partner who made an invaluable personal contribution to friendly" relations between the two countries, Russia's foreign ministry said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was "[d]eeply saddened and shocked" by Raisi's death.

In a statement, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller expressed official condolences for the deaths of Raisi and the other officials aboard the helicopter.

"As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms," Miller added.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist who was the target of an Iranian government kidnapping plot in 2021, said in a post on X that many Iranians were celebrating Raisi's demise.

"Why should I hide my feelings while many young Iranians, especially women who have been wounded during uprisings, are sharing videos of dancing in joy over his death?" she said.

"We Iranians will fight for our freedom, democracy, and dignity until the day we get rid of [Khamenei] and his religious dictatorship."

Copyright 2024 NPR

James Hider
James Hider is NPR's Middle East editor.
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