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What's next for Iran after president died in helicopter crash?

FILE - Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
FILE - Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Copyright Vahid Salemi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Vahid Salemi/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Tamsin Paternoster
Published on
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Reports that Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian died in a helicopter crash sent shockwaves around the region.

What happened?

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Iranian state TV announced on Monday that Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian were killed in a helicopter crash following an hours-long search.

The circumstances of the crash — which happened in the foggy Dizmar forest in Iran's East Azerbaijan province — are still unclear.

The pair were on their way back to the northern city of Tabriz after a trip to Iran's border with Azerbaijan to inaugurate a dam with the president of the neighbouring country, Ilham Aliyev.

Why did search and rescue efforts take so long?

Despite search efforts beginning on Sunday, the pair were only announced dead on Iranian State TV on Monday morning at 8 am local time (6:30 CEST). 

President of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, Pir-Hossein Koulivand, told the IRNA news agency that the 40 ground teams were impeded by "challenging weather conditions", including mountainous terrain and heavy fog. 

Koulivand added that drone searches were impossible due to bad weather. 

Rescue teams' vehicles are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in northwestern Iran, May 19, 2024.
Rescue teams' vehicles are seen near the site of the incident of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan in northwestern Iran, May 19, 2024.Azin Haghighi/AP

Who will take over?

Under the Iranian constitution, the country's first vice president — in this case,  Mohammad Mokhber — will take over as temporary president if the president dies. A new presidential election will be held within 50 days. 

Mokhber, 68, is a former officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Like Raisi, he is seen as close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He will likely not change course on foreign and domestic policy. 

The president of Iran is the head of the country's executive branch and is elected every four years. 

The position controls the government and has the potential to wield significant power. However, observers point out that true power in Iran lies with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the armed forces. 

Ali Bagheri Kani will replace Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian after he died in the crash, according to Iranian state media. 

He will be acting minister until election time, holding the seat for a maximum of 50 days, according to the constitution. 

How are Iranians reacting?

The death of Raisi and his foreign minister has elicited both mourning and celebration from Iranians around the world.

Supreme leader Khamenei has announced five days of mourning for the country. Iranian state media, meanwhile, has shown images of some people mourning and praying for Raisi.  

However, a different picture emerges on social media, where narratives and images aren't so tightly controlled. 

Pilgrims pray for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad, Sunday, May 19, 2024.
Pilgrims pray for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad, Sunday, May 19, 2024.Mohammad Hasan Salavati/AP

Iranian media in other countries, as well as several activists in Iran, have expressed joy at the crash which killed the pair, with the Islamic Republic deeply unpopular across broad sections of society. 

Iranian Women's Rights Activist Masih Alinejad posted on X, "Do not express condolences to the thousands of victims of Ebrahim Raisi. Instead, express your support for the people of Iran." 

Elsewhere, Alinejad dubbed the day "World Helicopter Day".

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What will the impact be?

Raisi was widely seen as one possible successor to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

His death raises questions about who will replace Khamenei as he ages.

So far, the political establishment has indicated to sources that Raisi and Khamenei's son, Mojtaba Khamenei, are the top contenders for the position. 

Raisi's death leaves Mojtaba with a clear path to political rule. His appointment, however, would leave the Iranian political establishment open to allegations of nepotism from leaders of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, who oppose a political system that resembles the monarchy they overthrew.

The crash occurs at a politically tense juncture as Iran sits at the centre of several geopolitical crises, including its controversial nuclear programme and its involvement in the war between Israel and Hamas. 

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A change in leadership could potentially change how the president handles interactions with the West and regional powers. 

Within Iran, Raisi's death has the potential to give rise to a fresh wave of protests and exacerbate existing societal tensions.

It also offers a power vacuum which the Revolutionary Guard, a powerful branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, may seek to exploit. 

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with a group of school teachers in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 1, 2024.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with a group of school teachers in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 1, 2024.AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader

Was Israel involved?

So far, the suggestion that Israel was directly involved in the mysterious helicopter crash that killed both Raisi and Amirabdollahian is speculation. 

Israeli officials have yet to comment on the incident. However, the theory has gained traction among Iranians, considering the animosity between the two countries. 

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Israel is believed to have carried out various attacks on senior Iranian military officials in the past.

Experts have suggested that Israel attacking a sitting president is unlikely, as it would amount to a direct act of war and illicit an intense response from Iran. 

Israel's targets are also usually military and nuclear targets, not political assassinations. 

Nevertheless, the timing of the crash can potentially worsen existing regional tensions.

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