Thursday, June 13, 2024

Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric who brought Iran closer to Russia, China

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NEW DELHI: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, killed along with foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a helicopter crash, was a hardline cleric and former judiciary chief who oversaw the forging of closer ties with Russia and China during his tenure.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi looks on during a meeting in Minab, Iran, February 2, 2024. (via REUTERS)

The 63-year-old leader will probably be best remembered among his Indian interlocutors for his push to develop Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as part of efforts to ensure that Iran could access alternative trade and transit routes.

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Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian were travelling on Sunday after the inauguration of the Qiz Qalasi dam on the Aras River at the Iran-Azerbaijan border when the helicopter crashed in the country’s mountainous northwest. The wreckage was found on Monday and Iran’s state-run media confirmed the death of all persons in the helicopter.

Rescue team works following a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, in Varzaqan, East Azerbaijan Province. (Reuters/WANA)
Rescue team works following a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, in Varzaqan, East Azerbaijan Province. (Reuters/WANA)

During his tenure of almost three years, Raisi had to contend with a series of challenges – economic pressures created by crippling Western sanctions regimes linked to Iran’s nuclear programme and its support for militias in Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon, widespread anti-government protests following the death in police custody of the Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, the on-off talks with the West for reviving the Iran nuclear deal, and, more recently, the spike in tensions with Israel.

Raisi, seen by some as a potential successor to the 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, became president in a controversial election in 2021 that saw all moderate and reformist opponents barred under Iran’s vetting system and the lowest voter turnout in the country’s history. Raisi succeeded Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric whose term as president saw Iran concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or nuclear deal with world powers.

After assuming office, Raisi consolidated the power of conservatives and cracked down on dissent, especially during the countrywide protests over the death in September 2022 of Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by morality police in Tehran for not wearing the hijab properly.

Raisi’s term was also marked by continuing economic problems, including inflation that has often exceeded 30%, a record fall in the value of the Iranian currency, and the impact of American sanctions that locked back in after former president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2018.

The Iranian government has also had to contend with the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the worst terrorist attack in the country since the 1979 revolution – dual suicide bombings in the city of Kerman during a ceremony to mark the death anniversary of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani in January that killed more than 80 people.

During Raisi’s term, Iran stepped up cooperation with both, China and Russia, especially in trade and defence. Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Tehran in July 2022, his first foreign trip since the start of the invasion of Ukraine and reports have suggested Iran has been supplying drones and other military hardware to Russia.

Iran has also continued working with China on a so-called 25-year cooperation programme, with Amir-Abdollahian announcing during a visit to Beijing in January 2022 that the pact had entered the implementation stage. The agreement envisages economic, military and security cooperation.

Iran has also continued supplying crude oil to China. In 2023, Iran resumed diplomatic ties with West Asian arch-rival Saudi Arabia after a seven-year hiatus under a deal brokered by China.

External affairs minister S Jaishankar was the first foreign leader to meet Raisi, even before his formal inauguration as president, and the Iranian leader consistently pushed for better relations with India, especially in trade and transit arrangements. In this context, he often pitched for expediting efforts to expand India’s role in operating a terminal at the strategic Chabahar port. Iran also pushed for Chabahar’s inclusion in the INSTC to enhance connectivity with landlocked Afghanistan and the Central Asian states.

In July 2023, Iran became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) while India held the rotating chairmanship of the grouping. A month later, when Raisi met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the margins of the Brics Summit in Johannesburg, he urged the Indian side to help accelerate Iran’s inclusion in the grouping.

More recently, Raisi supported an attack on Israel in April in retaliation for an Israeli air strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria that killed several Iranian generals. Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel, a marked shift from the shadow warfare waged by the two countries for decades that raised fears of the Israel-Hamas conflict becoming a wider conflagration.

Raisi was born in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city and home to the country’s holiest Shia shrine, on December 14, 1960. His father, a cleric, died when he was five and Raisi began attending a seminary in Qom at the age of 15. He spent most of his political career in judicial positions and had little influence on key security organisations such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps but was seen as a favourite to succeed Khamenei.

After Raisi lost his bid to become president in 2017, Khamenei made him the head of the judiciary.

He had earlier served as Iran’s attorney general after becoming the deputy prosecutor in Tehran at the age of only 25. It was his role as deputy prosecutor that is seen as the most controversial part of Raisi’s career. He was one of four judges who were part of secret tribunals set up in 1988 that came to be known as the “Death Committee”.

After Iran accepted an UN-brokered truce in its war with Iraq, Iranian tribunals began trials of members of the opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK), and international rights groups estimated as many as 5,000 people were executed. Raisi and others faced sanctions from the US and other countries over their alleged involvement in the mass execution of prisoners.

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