(Bloomberg) -- Ebrahim Raisi, the ultraconservative cleric whose tenure as Iran’s president was marked by a mass uprising and an increasingly hawkish stance toward the West, has died after a helicopter crash. He was 63.

The president’s helicopter went down Sunday in the northwest of the country, state media said. His death, along with that of Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian who was traveling with him, was confirmed Monday by the semi-official Mehr news agency.

Raisi, who won the election in 2021 to become the country’s eighth president, took office during an economic crisis brought on by the US withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal and the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the Middle East.

Though he had little influence on Iran’s most important institutions, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, he was widely seen in Iran as a favorite to eventually succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is in his mid-80s. His death removes the only serious rival to Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, to take the top job.

Raisi’s death comes at a time of turmoil in the Middle East, centered on Israel’s war against Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza. Triggered by Hamas’s attack on Israel in October, the war has spurred violence across the region. Iranian-supported militias in Iraq and Syria have targeted US bases, the Houthis in Yemen have fired on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Lebanon’s Hezbollah has launched missiles almost daily into Israel. Iran and Israel attacked each other directly for the first time in April.

Raisi won the presidency on a record-low turnout in a poll that mostly excluded reformists and veteran politicians. He entered office pledging to end efforts to build trade ties with the West and instead focus on developing links with China and Russia. His presidency ended a period in which the foreign ministry was led by multilingual diplomats who favored better relations with the US and stronger trade with Europe.

He was born in the north-east city of Mashhad, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. His father died when he was 5 years old and he attended various Islamic seminaries as a child before becoming a public prosecutor in Karaj, a city in northern Iran, in his early 20s. 

He was married to Jamileh Alamolhoda, the daughter of an ultraconservative cleric, and together they had two daughters.

Raisi first stood for the presidency in 2017, losing to Hassan Rouhani, the relatively moderate incumbent. Rouhani was central to the nuclear accord that former President Donald Trump jettisoned in 2018.

In his subsequent rise to the presidency and backed by the highest levels of Iran’s religious and military establishment, Raisi’s election meant all of the country’s state institutions and levers of power were in the hands of hardliners.

With Iran’s economy battered by years of sanctions, Raisi promised to improve matters when he finally took office. Instead, Iran’s currency has plummeted to successive lows against the dollar and the country is facing mounting pressure to boost cooperation with UN inspectors of its nuclear program, or face diplomatic censure followed by a potential referral to the UN Security Council.

Raisi was sanctioned by the US in 2019, which cited his role in human rights violations over many decades. In 2018, Amnesty International accused him of being a member of a “death commission” that forcibly disappeared and executed thousands of political dissidents in the late 1980s.

During his time in office, Iran was gripped by some of the most widespread and violent protests in the Islamic Republic’s history. Triggered by the death of a young woman who had died in police custody shortly after being arrested for allegedly violating Islamic dress codes, the protests were brutally suppressed.

Iran resumed diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 2023 after a seven-year rift, in a deal brokered by China. Both countries were invited to join the BRICS group of emerging-market nations that year, although so far only Iran has officially become a member. 

Raisi also sought to strengthen ties with China, visiting the country in 2023 and meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping. Iran has backed Russia in its war in Ukraine, supplying drones and participating in the creation of new shipping and rail routes, seeking to weaken sanctions.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.