Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, supreme leader’s protege, dies at 63 in helicopter crash

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line protege of the country’s supreme leader who helped oversee the mass executions of thousands in 1988 and later led the country as it enriched uranium to near weapons-grade levels, launched a major attack on Israel and experienced mass protests, has died. He was 63.

Raisi’s death, along with the foreign minister and other officials in a helicopter crash Sunday in northwestern Iran, came as Iran struggles with internal dissent and its relations with the wider world. A cleric first, Raisi once kissed the Quran, the Islamic holy book, before the United Nations and spoke more like a preacher than a statesman when addressing the world.

Raisi, who lost a presidential election to the relatively moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani in 2017, came to power four years later in a vote carefully managed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to clear any major opposition candidate.

His election came at a time when relations between Tehran and Washington were particularly tense following U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw America from a nuclear deal aimed at limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief.

While Raisi said he wanted to rejoin the deal with world powers, his new administration instead pushed back against international inspections of nuclear facilities, in part over an alleged sabotage campaign that Tehran blamed on Israel. Talks to restore the accord remained stalled in his government’s first months.

“Sanctions are the U.S.’ new way of war with the nations of the world,” Raisi told the United Nations in September 2021. “The policy of ‘maximum oppression’ is still on. We want nothing more than what is rightfully ours.”

Mass protests swept the country in 2022 after the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been detained over her allegedly loose headscarf, or hijab. The months long security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and more than 22,000 others were detained.

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