Who was Ebrahim Raisi? From Qom to Tehran

Who was Ebrahim Raisi? From Qom to Tehran


Previously served as the country’s chief justice

  • Represented conservative forces and was long-time member of the Assembly of Experts
  • Acted as a strong backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
  • In March 2023, his government agreed to a surprise rapprochement with Iran's bitter rival Saudi Arabia, seven years after they had severed diplomatic relations
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TEHRAN/DOHA/LONDON (Web Desk) – Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who represented conservative forces in the country, died after a helicopter carrying him and other officials crashed in a mountainous and forested area of the country in poor weather on Sunday. 

World media is remembering him in conflicting manners, with the Western outlets, especially those from the US, presenting him as ruthless leader. However, others have more realistic approach.


According to Al Jazeera, Raisi, 63, who previously served as a chief justice, appeared on track to run for re-election next year and was touted as a potential successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 85-year-old supreme leader of Iran. 

Born in Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, a religious hub for Shia Muslims, he underwent religious education and was trained at the seminary in Qom, studying under prominent scholars, including Khamenei.

Also like the supreme leader, he wore a black turban, which signified that he was a Sayyed – a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, a status with particular significance among Twelver Shia Muslims. 

Raisi racked up experience as a prosecutor in multiple jurisdictions before coming to Tehran in 1985. It was in the capital city that, according to human rights organisations, he was part of a committee of judges who oversaw executions of political prisoners.

The late president was a long-time member of the Assembly of Experts, the body that is tasked with choosing a replacement for the supreme leader in the event of his death.

He became attorney general in 2014 for two years, when he was appointed by Khamenei to lead the Astan Quds Razavi.

The colossal bonyad, or charitable trust, has billions of dollars in assets and is the custodian of the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia imam. 

Raisi initially ran for president in 2017, unsuccessfully challenging the re-election of former president Hassan Rouhani, who represented the centrist and moderate camps.

After a short hiatus, Raisi was making headlines as the new head of the Iranian judiciary system, having been appointed by Khamenei in 2019. He presented himself as a defender of justice and a fighter against corruption, and made many provincial travels to garner popular support.

Raisi became president in 2021 amid low voter turnout and wide disqualification of reformist and moderate candidates, and appeared to have secured a firm footing for re-election.

Like other top Iranian officials, his harshest rhetoric was reserved for Israel and the United States, followed by their Western allies.

Raisi made many speeches since the start of the war on Gaza in October to condemn “genocide” and “massacres” committed by Israel against Palestinians, and called on the international community to intervene.

He promised revenge against Israel after it levelled Tehran’s consulate building in Syria and killed seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including two generals.

And he welcomed Iran’s response, which was to launch hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel, most of which were shot down by a coalition of Israeli allies – but left Iran claiming an overall success.

Raisi was hawkish on Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has been in limbo after former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018.

He was a champion of the strategic policy of “resistance” and “resilience” that Khamenei has adopted in the face of the harshest-ever sanctions that Iran has faced – imposed after the nuclear deal fell through.

A close ally of the IRGC, the late president was also a staunch backer of the “axis of resistance” of political and armed groups that Iran supports across the region, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

And he was a strong backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Iran has supported in his government’s war against the Syrian opposition, which has left hundreds of thousands dead.


The respected British media house says his election in 2021 consolidated the control of conservatives over every part of the Islamic Republic.

He took power as Iran faced multiple challenges, including acute economic problems, escalating regional tensions, and stalled talks on the revival of a nuclear deal with world powers.

However, his time in office was dominated by the anti-government protests that swept across Iran in 2022, as well as the current war in Gaza between Israel and the Iran-backed Palestinian group Hamas, during which Iran's shadow war with Israel burst into the open.

He had also faced continuing calls from many Iranians and human rights activists for an investigation into his alleged role in the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s.

While a student he took part in protests against the Western-backed Shah, who was eventually toppled in 1979 in an Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In 2016, an audio tape of a 1988 meeting between Raisi, several other members of the judiciary and then Deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (1922-2009) was leaked.

In the tape, Montazeri is heard describing the executions as "the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic". A year later Montazeri lost his position as Khomeini's designated successor and Ayatollah Khamenei became the Supreme Leader upon Khomeini's death.

When asked in 2021 about his alleged role in the mass executions, Raisi told reporters: "If a judge, a prosecutor, has defended the security of the people, he should be praised... I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far."

As judiciary chief, Raisi implemented reforms that led to a reduction in the number of people sentenced to death and executed for drug-related offences in the country. However, Iran continued to put more people to death than any other country apart from China.

The judiciary also continued to work with the security services to crack down on dissent and to prosecute many Iranians with dual nationality or foreign permanent residency on spying charges.

Then-US President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Raisi over his human rights record in 2019. He was accused of having administrative oversight over the execution of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes, and of being involved in the violent crackdown on the protests by the opposition Green Movement after the disputed presidential election in 2009.

When Raisi announced his candidacy for the 2021 presidential election, he declared that he had "come as an independent to the stage to make changes in the executive management of the country and to fight poverty, corruption, humiliation and discrimination".

When he started his four-year term, Raisi promised to "improve the economy to resolve the nation's problems" and to "support any diplomatic plan" that led to the lifting of sanctions.

He was referring to the long-stalled negotiations on reviving a 2015 deal limiting Iran's nuclear activities, which has been close to collapse since the Trump administration abandoned it and reinstated crippling US economic sanctions in 2018. Iran has since retaliated by increasingly breaching the restrictions.

Raisi also pledged to improve ties with Iran's neighbours while at the same time defending its regional activities, describing them as a "stabilizing force".

In March 2023, his government agreed to a surprise rapprochement with Iran's bitter rival, regional Sunni power Saudi Arabia, seven years after they had severed diplomatic relations.

But regional tensions soared that October when Hamas carried out an unprecedented cross-border attack on southern Israel and Israel responded by launching a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza.

At the same time, Iran's network of allied armed groups and proxies operating across the Middle East - including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and various militias in Iraq and Syria - significantly stepped up their attacks against Israel in what they said was a demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Fears that the escalation would spark a regional war were heightened in April, after Iran carried out its first direct military strike on Israel.

Raisi supported the decision to launch more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel in retaliation for a deadly strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria. Almost all of them were shot down by Israel, Western allies and Arab partners. An airbase in southern Israel sustained only minor damage when it was hit.

Little was known about Raisi's private life except that his wife, Jamileh, taught at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, and that they had two adult daughters. His father-in-law was Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hard-line Friday prayer leader in Mashhad.