Iran moves toward stability project after crash killed key leaders

Iran sought to convey a sense of order and control on Monday by quickly naming an interim president and a foreign minister, a day after both leaders died in a helicopter crash. The change in leadership came at a time of rising tensions in the Middle East and domestic discontent in Iran, where many residents have called for an end to decades of repressive clerical rule.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced five days of mourning for the president, Ebrahim Raisi, 63, and the foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, 60, who died when their helicopter crashed in a mountainous area near the Iranian city of Jolfa. The men were returning from the Iranian border with Azerbaijan after inaugurating a joint dam project.

Iran's military said it had created a committee to investigate the crash, which state media blamed on a “technical failure.”

Raisi, a hardline cleric who grew up during the country's Islamic revolution, oversaw a deadly crackdown on protesters as head of the judiciary in 2019 and as president in 2022. He had been widely seen as a possible successor to Mr Khamenei, 85.

On Monday, Khamenei appointed Iran's first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, as interim president and announced that Mokhber would organize elections for a new president within 50 days. A conservative politician, Mokhber has a long history of involvement in large business conglomerates closely linked to Khamenei.

The Iranian Cabinet has appointed Ali Bagheri Kani, deputy foreign minister, as the ministry's “caretaker”, state news agency IRNA reported. Bagheri Kani served as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and was involved last year in a deal that freed imprisoned Americans in exchange for several jailed Iranians and possible access to about $6 billion in Iranian funds.

Iranian officials said there would be a public procession on Tuesday in Tabriz, the closest major city to the crash site, and that the bodies would then be taken to Tehran for a state funeral.

Some Iranians mourned Mr. Raisi, including people who held an all-night vigil in his hometown of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. State media also showed images of vigils in Tehran and several other cities.

“Raisi was tireless,” Khamenei said in a statement. “In this sad incident, the Iranian people have lost a valuable and loyal public servant.”

Mohammad Ali Ahangaran, a prominent religious scholar in Tehran, said in a telephone interview that he cried for hours when he heard the news and said that although he had once campaigned against Raisi, the death of a president was a sad time for the nation.

Iranian analysts said that while there was speculation about who might be elected as the next president, there was little doubt about the overall stability of the country or government. They stressed that Khamenei will remain the supreme leader with power over major state policies.

“These deaths shocked everyone – even the rival political factions all came together to express solidarity, as is customary in Iranian culture when someone dies,” Sasan Karimi, an adjunct professor and foreign policy researcher at the University of Tehran. telephone interview. “In reality, there will be no real power vacuum in Iran because the cabinet and the government are present and functioning.”

Despite official calls for mourning, many Iranians welcomed Raisi's death, seeing him as one of the key figures in a corrupt regime that oversaw the execution of dissidents, used brutal violence to repress and kill protesters, and arrested journalists and activists. Many of the victims were women and young people.

Over the past two years, anger at the government has grown even as Iran's currency fell to an all-time low, water shortages were intensified by climate change and the country was hit by the deadliest terrorist attack since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

On social media, a widely circulated meme showed a young woman's braided hair with her head exposed from a downed helicopter. The image was a reference to the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests that began in 2022, in opposition to a law requiring women to dress modestly and wear headscarves.

“All this humor is a bitter expression of a nation's pain,” said Safa, 55, a doctor from Mashhad who, like other Iranians, asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of government retaliation.

Parisa, 55, who lives in Lahijan, northwest Iran, said she was initially relieved when she learned that the president and foreign minister had been killed in a helicopter crash.

“But after they were found, I thought this easy death was not enough for them,” he said. “They should have been tried in court and forced to scream like dogs and received long and painful punishments.”

Many countries, including the United States, expressed their condolences after the accident.

Iranian state television reported that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, a close ally of Iran, had spoken to Mokhber and offered Russia's assistance “full force.” Turkey, Iraq and the European Union also said they offered help in search and recovery efforts at the crash site.

John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said the United States expressed its “condolences,” but added that “we will continue to hold Iran accountable for all of its destabilizing behavior in the region, which continues today again.”

Last month, a long-running shadow war between Iran and Israel burst into the open with an exchange of direct attacks. Two Iranian-backed militias, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, continue to fight Israeli forces. And the future of Iran's nuclear program looms over the Middle East. The country has produced enriched nuclear fuel to a level just below that needed to make several bombs.

In Israel, Raisi was perceived as a senior figure who had little influence on foreign policy or Iran's support for Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen.

“From Israel's point of view, I don't see any result in the fact that he was replaced by some other radical conservative Iranian,” said Sima Shine, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv research group. “The president is not the most important person in Iran.”

Analysts said Raisi's death could raise the prospects of the ayatollah's son, Mojtaba Khamenei, succeeding him as supreme leader. A low-profile hardliner, he grew up among Iran's clerical and political elite and has close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful Iranian military force.

A growing number of leaders within Iran's political establishment have begun to support him publicly, said Arash Azizi, a professor at Clemson University who focuses on Iran.

“When people started talking about Mojtaba as a potential successor in 2009, I considered it a cheap rumor,” Dr Azizi said. “But that's no longer the case. Now it's very clear that he is a notable figure. And it's extraordinary because he has been almost completely invisible to the public eye.

Other Iranian experts have rejected the idea that Mojtaba Khamenei could replace his father as supreme leader, saying it would upset the logic of Iran's governing system. First, the son teaches at Iran's largest seminary, but has not achieved high rank within the Shiite clerical hierarchy, a qualification long considered necessary for the role of supreme leader.

Since the Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah in 1979, Iran has also proclaimed the end of hereditary rule as one of its fundamental principles.

“If the supreme leader becomes a hereditary system, what does it mean? It means the system is dead,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, an Iranian analyst and editor of Amwaj, a British-based news outlet that focuses on Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.

Until a successor is chosen, there will be an intense struggle for influence and power, analysts say. And ultimately, they said, the choice will be made within an opaque system that has only grown less transparent in recent years.

“The reality is that no one knows,” Shabani said. “And this is crazy: there is no transparency on a process that affects millions of Iranians.”

Reporting contribution was provided by Michael Levenson, Michael D. Shear, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Erika Solomon, Patrick Kingsley, Anton Troyanovski AND Matina Stevis-Gridneff.

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