Iranian President Raisi: a hardliner on morality, protests and nuclear talks

By Reuters
May 20, 2024
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a meeting with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev on the Azerbaijan-Iran border, May 19, 2024. — Reuters

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whose helicopter crashed in mountainous terrain on Sunday, has become a contender to be Iran’s next supreme leader with a clampdown on morality questions and a bloody crackdown on the nationwide protests it triggered.


Raisi’s victory in an election in 2021, after heavyweight conservative and moderate rivals were disqualified by a hardline oversight body, brought all branches of power under the control of hardliners loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Raisi’s 85-year-old mentor, who has the final say on all major policies.

Raisi, 63, took a tough stance in now-moribund negotiations with six major powers to revive a 2015 nuclear deal, seeing a chance to win broad relief from US sanctions in return for only modest curbs on Iran’s increasingly advanced nuclear programme.

Hardliners in Iran have been emboldened by the chaotic US military withdrawal from neighbouring Afghanistan and policy swings in Washington.

In 2018, then-US president Donald Trump had reneged on the deal Tehran had done with the six powers and restored harsh US sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to progressively violate the agreement’s nuclear limits.

Indirect talks between US President Joe Biden’s administration and Tehran to revive the pact have stalled.

Raisi’s hardline position has also been evident in domestic politics; a year after his election, the mid-ranking cleric ordered that authorities tighten enforcement of Iran’s “hijab and chastity law” restricting women’s dress and behaviour.

Within weeks, a young Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody after being arrested by morality police for allegedly violating that law. The resulting months of nationwide protests presented one of the gravest challenges to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Hundreds were killed, according to rights groups, including dozens of security personnel who were part of a fierce crackdown on the demonstrators. “Acts of chaos are unacceptable,” the president insisted.

Although a political novice, Raisi has had full backing for the nuclear stance and the security crackdown from his patron, the strongly anti-Western Khamenei.

However, the widespread protests against clerical rule and a failure to turn around Iran’s struggling economy - hamstrung by Western sanctions and mismanagement - may have diminished his popularity at home.

As a young prosecutor in Tehran, Raisi sat on a panel that oversaw the execution of hundreds of political prisoners in the Iranian capital in 1988, as Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq was coming to an end, rights groups say.