Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi Dies in Helicopter Crash, Leaving Behind a Polarizing Legacy

Photograph Source: Hossein Razaqnejad – CC BY 4.0

Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian President, and the country’s foreign minister were tragically found deceased on May 20, 2024, shortly after their helicopter crashed in foggy conditions. In response, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly appointed a relatively unknown vice president as the interim leader.

According to Iran’s Constitution, the First Vice President assumes the presidency in the event of the President’s death or incapacity. Mohammad Mokhber, appointed to this role by the late President Raisi in August 2021, will now take over the presidency. Despite Iran having several Vice Presidents serving in its Cabinet, the First Vice President holds the most senior position. Mohammad Mokhber will serve as President until a new election is held, as mandated, within the next 50 days.

The helicopter crash occurred on Sunday in East Azerbaijan amidst challenging conditions in mountainous terrain and icy weather.

Ebrahim Raisi, a significant figure in Iran’s political arena, was elected as the next president of Iran following the 2021 elections. These elections took place amid concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic impact of U.S. sanctions, and uncertainties regarding the nuclear deal. Notably, there were significant concerns about voter disengagement. The outcome signaled a strengthening of conservative power in Iran’s political sphere.

Born into a devoutly religious family in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city in 1960, Ebrahim Raisi commenced his extensive theological studies at the Qom religious seminary at the tender age of 15. By the time of the establishment of the Islamic Republic following the 1979 revolution, Raisi, then 18, rapidly ascended the ranks of power. He initially served as the prosecutor general of Karaj, a suburb of Tehran, and later assumed the position of deputy prosecutor for the entire capital.

Following the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Iran’s first supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini covertly issued decrees condemning thousands of political prisoners to death. These prisoners, primarily from dissident groups like the People’s Mujahedin of Iran and supporters of leftist factions, were targeted following Iran’s acceptance of a ceasefire, which triggered a series of attacks.

A “death commission,” comprising four individuals, reportedly including Ebrahim Raisi, was subsequently established to oversee the executions. Amnesty International released a report in 1990 documenting these killings, highlighting the absence of fair trials for the victims. Despite international condemnation, Iran has never officially acknowledged its role in these events.

In 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Raisi and other high-ranking Iranian officials for their involvement in human rights abuses. Raisi, who served as Tehran’s deputy prosecutor general, was accused of participating in the “death commission” responsible for the extrajudicial killings of political prisoners.

Raisi, always a staunch supporter of the establishment, held several key positions within Iran’s judicial system. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, Raisi was appointed as the prosecutor of Tehran. He served as the First Deputy Chief Justice from 2004 to 2014, followed by his appointment as the Attorney-General of Iran from 2014 until 2016.

In 2016, Mr. Khamenei appointed him to lead the Astan Quds Razavi (Imam Reza charity foundation), which manages a vast network of businesses and endowments. These foundations, mainly sustained by donations or assets seized during the 1979 revolution, operate directly under the Supreme Leader’s authority. When Raisi assumed leadership of the foundation, Mr. Khamenei publicly praised him as a trustworthy person with high-profile experience, a rare commendation from the Supreme Leader. This endorsement fueled speculation that Raisi might be groomed as a potential successor.

Raisi assumed office during a critical period for Iran. The nation grappled with a faltering economy, exacerbated by sanctions, and the collapse of the nuclear deal, which had promised economic relief. The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained for violating Iran’s strict hijab regulations, triggered widespread protests. Raisi endorsed a severe crackdown on these demonstrations.

In response to both internal unrest and external pressures, Iran escalated its nuclear activities, initiated arms shipments to Russia, and reaffirmed its support for various organizations, including Hezbollah, the Houthis, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Shia Mobilization Units.

Raisi, a notable figure in Iran’s political landscape, earned recognition for his efforts in establishing robust partnerships with China and Russia, significantly shaping Iran’s foreign policy. He played a crucial role in brokering the Chabahar Port deal with India, contributing to the cessation of Iran’s global isolation.

Analysts attribute these diplomatic accomplishments to Raisi’s strategic prowess. The reconciliation with Saudi Arabia facilitated dialogue with other regional powers and led to a temporary reduction in tensions. In November last year, amidst Israel’s Gaza conflict, both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Raisi attended an urgent Arab League summit in Riyadh, advocating for stronger measures against Israel. Alongside political gains, the reconciliation between two major regional economies stimulated discussions on enhancing trade relations.

Under Raisi’s leadership, Iran revitalized the Chabahar port agreement with India, defying potential U.S. sanctions. The recent decade-long pact between the two nations will witness India undertaking the development and management of Iran’s strategic port, facilitating access to Afghanistan and Central Asian countries while bypassing Pakistan. India’s infusion of $120 million into Shahid Beheshti terminal infrastructure, coupled with an additional $250 million credit line for associated projects, brings the contract’s total worth to $370 million.

Iran’s continued endorsement of groups like Hamas under Raisi has magnified its sway in West Asia and the Arab world, prompting other Arab nations such as Egypt to publicly extend support and assistance to Palestinians.

The passing of Raisi creates a significant vacuum in Iranian politics. Vice President Mohammad Mokhber’s appointment as the temporary leader adds to the uncertainty during this transitional phase. Raisi’s contributions to Iran’s politics and foreign relations leave a lasting impression on the nation and its surroundings. As Iran moves through this critical period, the future direction of its leadership remains uncertain.

Pranjal Pandey, a journalist and editor located in Delhi, has edited seven books covering a range of issues available at LeftWord. You can explore his journalistic contributions on