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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What we know about the helicopter crash that killed Iran’s president

President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Dave Sanders for The New York Times)

By Cassandra Vinograd and Farnaz Fassihi

The deaths of Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, and foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, in a helicopter crash have left one of the Middle East’s most powerful and disruptive nations at a critical moment.

Here’s a look at what we know about the crash and its potential implications.

What happened?

Raisi, 63, and Amirabdollahian were traveling back from Iran’s border with Azerbaijan after inaugurating a joint dam project when their helicopter went down in a remote and mountainous area around 1 p.m. Sunday, according to state media.

Search-and-rescue teams battled rain and heavy fog to scour the mountains and dense forest for more than 10 hours, looking for the crash site. Authorities called off the aerial search at one point because of the weather, dispatching elite commandos of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and others on foot.

State television urged the public to pray for the safety of Raisi and his delegation as the rescue effort — which involved about 2,000 people — stretched through the night.

Search teams found the helicopter Monday morning as daylight broke, and broadcasts on state television showed images of burning debris. There were no survivors.

The helicopter crashed because of a “technical failure,” the IRNA state news agency said in an article paying tribute to Raisi. It appeared to be the first time a cause of the crash was indicated. Some Iran observers suggested that decades of international sanctions, which have caused the country’s aviation fleet to atrophy, might have played a role.

Who are the victims?

Raisi, a hard-line cleric who came of age during the country’s Islamic Revolution, was the second-most-powerful person in Iran’s political structure after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

After his ascent to the presidency in 2021, Raisi consolidated power and marginalized reformists. He expanded Iran’s regional influence, backing proxies across the Middle East, and oversaw a deadly crackdown on domestic protesters.

Amirabdollahian was a career diplomat and, like Raisi, a hard-liner. He was seen as closely aligned with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and was also believed to have had a close relationship with Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful leader of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, whom the United States killed in a drone strike in 2020.

The IRNA reported that in addition to Raisi and Amirabdollahian, those killed included Malek Rahmati, governor of East Azerbaijan province, and Mehdi Mousavi, head of Raisi’s security team. The agency said Mohammad Ali Al-e-Hashem, the local representative of the supreme leader, was also with them but did not name the crew of the aircraft.

What happens now?

Iranian authorities have appeared eager to project a sense of order and control.

Ali Khamenei — who had said there would be “no disruption” to the government’s work — issued a statement offering his condolences and announcing five days of public mourning.

He said that Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, will take over managing the government and will work with the heads of the legislature and judiciary to hold elections for a new president within 50 days. A conservative political operative, Mokhber has been involved in business conglomerates closely tied to the supreme leader.

To fill the hole left by the death of Amirabdollahian, Iran’s Cabinet appointed one of his deputies, Ali Bagheri Kani, as the foreign ministry’s “caretaker,” the IRNA reported. Bagheri Kani has served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and was involved in the deal last year that freed imprisoned Americans in exchange for several jailed Iranians and eventual access to about $6 billion in Iranian funds.

A public funeral procession for Iran’s president and foreign minister will be held in the northwestern city of Tabriz on Tuesday morning, according to the country’s interior minister, Ahmad Vahidi. He said the bodies would then be taken to Tehran, the capital, for an official funeral.

Are there broader implications?

The death of Raisi, a conservative who violently crushed dissent, comes during a particularly tumultuous period for Iran.

Its long shadow war with Israel burst into the open after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, setting off a war in the Gaza Strip and a cascade of strikes and counterstrikes across the region. The hostilities became even more pronounced after Israel killed a number of senior Iranian commanders in a strike on an Iranian Embassy compound in Syria last month. Iran retaliated with its first direct attack on Israel after decades of enmity.

The future of Iran’s nuclear program is another crucial issue. Iran has produced nuclear fuel enriched to a level just short of what would be needed to produce several bombs. Just last week, Amirabdollahian met with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, who was demanding better access to Iran’s sprawling nuclear facilities.

Domestically, Iran is also facing widespread discontent, with many residents calling for an end to clerical rule. Corruption and sanctions have gutted the economy, stoking frustrations. In the past two years, the country has witnessed a domestic uprising, the Iranian currency plunging to a record low, water shortages intensified by climate change and the deadliest terrorist attack since the 1979 founding of the Islamic Republic.

Will Raisi’s death have a big impact?

Some analysts said they did not expect Raisi’s death to herald a major change in Iran’s international agenda, since the nation’s supreme leader is responsible for setting the country’s policies and the president’s power comes from enacting those decisions.

“At one level, the outcome does not portend a sea change in how Iran formulates and acts upon its interests abroad,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director at the International Crisis Group.

However, Raisi’s unexpected death could change the political calculus within Iran, analysts said.

“The trouble for the regime is that a crash will unsettle the political environment,” said Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. “That could spark political infighting inside the regime, especially behind the scenes.”

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