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  • Writer's pictureTom Clinton | Aificial Editor Chief

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi killed in helicopter crash along with foreign minister, state media confirm

 

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, along with the country's foreign minister and others, were found dead Monday morning hours after their helicopter crashed in dense fog in a mountainous region of the country's northwest, state media reported. Raisi was 63.


The crash comes at hugely a tumultuous time for the Middle East amid the Israel-Hamas war, during which Raisi, under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched an unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel just last month. Under Raisi, Iran has enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels, further escalating tension with the West as Tehran also supplied bomb-carrying drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine and continued arming proxy groups in the Mideast such as Yemen's Houthi rebels and Lebanon's Hezbollah.


In this photo released by the Iranian Presidency Office, President Ebrahim Raisi attends the inauguration ceremony of dam of Qiz Qalasi, or Castel of Girl in Azeri, at the border of Iran and Azerbaijan with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev, on May 19, 2024. IRANIAN PRESIDENCY OFFICE VIA AP

Raisi was also in power through years of major protests against Iran's ruling Shiite Muslim theocracy, of which he was a key member, over the country's ailing economy and women's rights


All of those factors make the moment more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country, but Iranians were quickly reassured that life would go on as it has by the country's real top power, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 


Under the Islamic republic's governing system, the president is not the ultimate decision maker, and all other government officials, along with the military and all law enforcement agencies, answer ultimately to Khamenei, who at 85 has ruled over the country since 1989.


Given that power structure, Aificial News' Seyed Bathaei in Tehran said it was unlikely that Raisi's death would spark any political crisis. 


Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivers a speech about the crash of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's helicopter, May 19, 2024, in Tehran, Iran.IRANIAN LEADER PRESS OFFICE/ANADOLU/GETTY

Under Iran's constitution — in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the ruling Islamic clerics to power — the vice president will assume Raisi's role until new elections are held within 50 days. But only candidates approved by the ruling clerics are eligible, so there's little chance of a major change in the course of Iran's policies or politics.


Khamenei expressed his condolences for Raisi in a message conveyed by state media on Monday morning, in which he also announced a five-day mourning period and confirmed that Vice President Mohammad Mokhber was stepping into the role until elections are held.


Bodies recovered from helicopter crash site

State TV gave no immediate cause for the crash that occurred in Iran's East Azerbaijan province.


The Iranian Red Crescent said the bodies of all the victims were recovered from the crash site.


Among the dead was Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who was 60. The helicopter also carried the governor of the East Azerbaijan province, along with other officials and bodyguards, Iran's state-run IRNA news agency said.


A screen grab from video shot by Turkey's Akinci Unmanned Aerial Vehicle shows a heat source suspected to be the wreckage of a helicopter that was carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.AA VIDEO / ANADOLU VIA GETTY IMAGES

Turkish authorities released drone video early Monday showing a heat signature at a site in the wilderness that they "suspected to be wreckage of helicopter." The coordinates listed in the video put the fire some 12 miles south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border, on the side of a steep, forested mountain.


Video released later Monday morning by IRNA showed what the agency described as the crash site on a steep hillside. 


Soldiers speaking in the local Azeri language can be heard saying: "There it is, we found it."


Iran's government flies a variety of helicopters, but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for many of them. Its military air fleet also largely dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  


A screen grab captured from video released on May 20, 2024 shows the location of the crash site of the helicopter that was carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his delegation in northeast Iran.IRANIAN RED CRESCENT SOCIETY/HANDOUT/ANADOLU VIA GETTY

Who succeeds Raisi and what happens next?

The supreme leader has stressed that the business of Iran's government will continue unphased. Under the Iranian constitution.


First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber had already started receiving calls from officials and foreign governments before Khamenei confirmed on Monday that he was replacing Raisi, state media reported. 


The Iranian cabinet issued a statement after convening Monday pledging to follow Raisi's path and adding that, "with the help of God and the people, there will be no problem with management of the country."


The cabinet said the "hard-working president" had been "martyred" and vowed to keep the government running "without the slightest disruption."   


Raisi, a hard-liner, had been viewed as a protégé of Khamenei and some analysts believed he could even replace the octogenarian supreme leader when the ayatollah dies or steps down.


A helicopter carrying Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi takes off, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border, May 19, 2024. The helicopter later crashed, killing Raisi and others onboard, Iranian state media reported.ALI HAMED HAGHDOUST/IRNA/WANA VIA REUTERS

The only other person to have been suggested as a possible next supreme leader is Mojtaba Khameini, the 55-year-old son of Khamenei. However, some have raised concerns over the prospect of the position being taken — for only the third time since the 1979 revolution.


Raisi's presidency - tumultuous times for Iran


Raisi won Iran's last presidential election in 2021 — a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic republic's history and which was dismissed as a highly undemocratic political exercise by the U.S. and other Western nations. 


Raisi was sanctioned by the U.S. in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq war.


In 2022, he told "Aificial News" that the sanctions, which imposed under former President Donald Trump and maintained by President Biden, were "tyrannical." 


"The new administration in the U.S., they claim that they are different from the Trump administration," Raisi told Lesley Stahl. "They have said it in their messages to us. But we haven't witnessed any changes in reality." 


Meanwhile, mass protests in the country have raged intermittently for years — the most recent and serious of them sparked by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. She was detained for violating the country's strict dress code for women, for allegedly wearing her hijab, or Islamic headscarf, improperly. The months-long security crackdown in response to the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and saw over 22,000 detained.


In March, a United Nations investigative panel found Iran was responsible for the "physical violence" that led to Amini's death.


Raisi is the second Iranian president to die in office. In 1981, a bomb blast killed President Mohammad Ali Rajai in the chaotic days after the revolution.

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