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Source: NY Times

May 20, 2024

Live Updates: Raisi Dies in Crash, Iranian State Media Report

President Ebrahim Raisi and Iran’s foreign minister were killed in a helicopter crash, leaving the country without two of its most influential figures.

By Farnaz Fassihi and Matthew Mpoke Bigg

Here are the latest developments

The deaths of President Ebrahim Raisi and Iran’s foreign minister leave the country without two influential leaders at a particularly tumultuous moment of international tension and domestic discontent, although analysts and regional officials expect little change in Iran’s foreign or domestic policies.

Mr. Raisi, 63, and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian were killed on Sunday in a helicopter crash resulting from a “technical failure,” Iranian state news media reported. They were traveling from Iran’s border with Azerbaijan after inaugurating a dam project when their helicopter went down in a mountainous area near the city of Jolfa.

Search and rescue teams scoured a rugged area of dense forest through rain and fog for hours before finding the crash site. There were no survivors.

The Iranian authorities have sought to project a sense of order and control. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there would be “no disruption” to the government’s work, and on Monday he said that the first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, will assume the role of acting president and must organize elections for a new president within 50 days.

The death of Mr. Raisi, a conservative who crushed dissent and had been viewed as a possible successor to Mr.  Khamenei, occurred weeks after Tehran came close to open conflict with Israel and the United States. A long shadow war with Israel burst into the open in an exchange of direct strikes last month. And looming over everything is the question of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has produced nuclear fuel enriched to a level just short of what would be needed to produce several bombs.

Here’s what to know:

  • Mr. Raisi, a hard-line religious cleric who came of age during the country’s Islamic revolution, was the second most powerful individual in Iran’s political structure after Mr. Khamenei. His death may pave the way for Mr. Khamenei’s son Mojtaba to assume the role of supreme leader.

  • Following his ascent to the presidency in 2021, Mr. Raisi consolidated power and marginalized reformists. He continued to expand Iran’s regional influence, backing proxies across the Middle East that have conducted strikes against Israel and the United States, and oversaw a deadly crackdown on domestic protesters, many of them women and young people.

  • The clandestine war with Israel burst into the open after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, setting off the war in Gaza and a cascade of strikes and counterstrikes across the region. The hostilities became even more pronounced after Israel conducted airstrikes on a building in the Iranian Embassy complex in Syria in April. Iran retaliated with its first direct attack on Israel after decades of enmity, launching more than 300 drones and missiles toward the country, almost all of which were shot down.

  • The authorities in Iran also face domestic anger, with many residents calling for an end to clerical rule. Corruption and international sanctions have ravaged the economy. In the last two years, the country has seen 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.

By Anton Troianovski

The Kremlin said President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia spoke by phone today with Mohammad Mokhber, Iran’s acting president. The Russian leader had a close relationship with Mokhber’s predecessor, with Iran a key source of weapons for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The two had spoken by phone, by video link or in person at least 17 times in the last two years, according to the Kremlin’s website.

By Patrick Kingsley

Israel should expect little change from Raisi’s replacement, experts say

After President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran was killed in a helicopter crash, Israeli officials quickly dismissed suggestions that they were behind his death.

Analysts said Monday that Israel, despite being one of Iran’s biggest foes, saw little strategic benefit to Mr. Raisi’s death and was not likely to change its posture toward Tehran as a result of it.

In Israel, Mr. Raisi was perceived as a weak figurehead who had little influence on Iran’s foreign policy, in particular its backing for Israel’s enemies across the Middle East. Israeli experts said that his replacement was expected to maintain Iran’s stance toward Israel, and that the real power in Tehran lay with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“From Israel’s point of view, I don’t see any achievement in his being replaced by some other radical conservative Iranian,” said Sima Shine, a former senior official in the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, where she focused on Iran. “The president is not the most important person in Iran,” said Ms. Shine, now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, a research group in Tel Aviv.

With or without Mr. Raisi, Israel still sees Iran as an existential threat, both because of its efforts to build a nuclear program as well as its support for groups that are hostile to Israel, including Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

To restrain Iranian influence, Israel has assassinated Iranian officials and targeted its nuclear and military facilities. In 2020, Israeli agents killed Iran’s top nuclear scientist using a remote-controlled gun. Earlier this year, an Israeli strike in Syria killed three senior Iranian military commanders, prompting Iran to respond with a huge barrage of ballistic and cruise missiles.

But Israel was unlikely to have killed Mr. Raisi, because he, unlike experienced scientists and generals, is ultimately so replaceable, according to Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli professor who teaches Iranian studies at Reichman University in Israel.

The killing of a nuclear scientist might slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear program, but any Iranian president is likely to maintain the same antagonism toward Israel, he said.

“His absence or presence” would not have much of an impact either way, Professor Javedanfar said. “The same cannot be said of a nuclear scientist, working on a program that could produce a nuclear bomb to threaten Israel.”

He called Mr. Raisi “a foot soldier of the supreme leader,” and added: “He was a loyal servant, with little influence within the regime.”

By Anton Troianovski

Raisi’s final trip put the spotlight on a key relationship in the Caucasus region

President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, right, meeting with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan at the site of dam on the Aras river between the two countries on Sunday.Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

When he met his Iranian counterpart on Sunday, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan told him that the day would “go down as a beautiful and bright chapter in the history of Iran-Azerbaijan relations.”

It would be one of the last meetings President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran had before he died.

That Mr. Raisi perished in a helicopter crash on his way back from a rare meeting with the president of Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor to the north, highlights the fragile geopolitical dynamics in Caucasus region that could be unsettled by his death.

Sunday’s meeting was the high point of an effort by both countries to patch up their relationship, which had been strained by an attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran last year and by Azerbaijan’s increasingly close ties to Israel, Iran’s archenemy.

Those efforts could be dealt a setback by Mr. Raisi’s death, in part because Azerbaijan’s partnership with Israel might give rise to conspiracy theories blaming it, Zaur Shiriyev, an independent scholar based in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, said.

In Iran, “there will likely be attempts to blame external enemies,” Mr. Shiriyev said. “Such allegations could create new tensions in Baku-Tehran ties, which Baku would definitely like to avoid.”

Iranian state news media reported on Monday that the cause of the helicopter crash was a “technical failure.”

Israel is a key international partner for Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim, energy-rich former Soviet republic in the Caucasus Mountains. When Azerbaijan fought a 44-day war against its neighbor Armenia in 2020 to recapture a swath of territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh, Israel provided drones so crucial in the victory that Israeli flags were waved in the streets of Baku.

Amid Israel’s war in Gaza, Mr. Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leader, has sought to avoid taking sides and to tamp down any pro-Palestinian sentiment inside his country, according to Mr. Shiriyev. Azerbaijan’s state oil company, Socar, continues to export to Israel, drawing public protests in Turkey, Azerbaijan’s most important ally.

Azerbaijan’s relationship with Iran has been tense for years.

Azerbaijan’s military victory over Armenia in 2020, and its closer ties to both Turkey and Israel, redrew the geopolitical map of the Caucasus, a volatile region where the interests of Russia, Turkey and Iran have long come into conflict. And early last year, Azerbaijan closed its embassy in Tehran after the deadly attack that Mr. Aliyev called a terrorist act.

But both sides have since tried to repair the relationship, and Azerbaijani officials have said they would not allow Israel to use their territory or airspace in the event of a war between Israel and Iran.

There are also economic incentives for the rapprochement. A railway project running partly through Azerbaijan will link Russia to Iranian seaports, out of reach of Western sanctions. Last fall, Azerbaijan and Iran jointly broke ground on a bridge that would connect the main part of Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan.

And when Mr. Raisi and Mr. Aliyev met on Sunday, at the border between the two countries, they were inaugurating a jointly built hydroelectric dam on the Aras River.

“Some may not like our meetings and our joint successes,” Mr. Raisi told Mr. Aliyev on Sunday, according to the Azerbaijani president’s office. “The main thing is that we have implemented together what is good for our countries, states and peoples.”

By Cassandra Vinograd

The helicopter crashed due to a “technical failure,” the IRNA state news agency said in an English-language article paying tribute to Raisi. It appeared to be the first time the cause of the crash was indicated.

Wana News Agency, via Reuters

With the death of the foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s Cabinet has appointed one of his deputies, Ali Bagheri Kani, as the ministry’s “caretaker,” the IRNA state news agency reported. Kani has served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and was involved in the 2023 deal that freed imprisoned Americans in exchange for several jailed Iranians and Iranian funds.

Alex Halada/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Alissa J. Rubin

What to know about Mohammad Mokhber, Iran’s acting president

Mohammad Mokhber, who is acting president, had held senior positions in some of Iran’s most powerful conglomerates.Credit...Iranian Vice President’s Media Office

With the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, becomes acting president. Mr. Mokhber is a conservative political operative with a long history of involvement in large business conglomerates closely tied to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In a statement on Monday, Mr. Khamenei said that Mr. Mokhber must work with the heads of the legislature and judiciary to hold elections for a new president within 50 days.

Vice presidents in Iran are typically low profile, operating more as players within the government than as public figures.

“Iran’s vice presidents have traditionally not been contenders to succeed their bosses,” said Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center in Washington. “The bigger question,” she added, “is who will the regime allow to run for the office.”

Mr. Mokhber is around 68 years old and became first vice president in August 2021. He is originally from Khuzestan Province in Iran’s southwest, bordering Iraq and the Persian Gulf. He was a deputy governor there, and during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s served as a member of the Revolutionary Guards medical corps.

One of Mr. Mokhber’s relatively few high-profile appearances came when he and three other senior Iranian officials went to Moscow in October 2022 to complete a sale of Iranian drones and ballistic missiles to Russia, for use in the war in Ukraine.

Mr. Raisi chose him as vice president after Mr. Mokhber held senior positions in some of Iran’s most powerful organizations, including the Mostazafan Foundation, Sina Bank and Setad, a conglomerate entirely controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei that has billions of dollars in assets and was involved — not entirely successfully — in efforts to make and distribute a Covid-19 vaccine.

All three organizations are part of an opaque network of financial entities that are tied to the Iranian state, although they are not directly state-owned. They are also connected to projects that are priorities for the supreme leader and his inner circle.

Mr. Mokhber’s involvement suggests that he has been a successful behind-the-scenes player who is familiar with the financing networks that are important to the official Iranian power structure.

The Mostazafan Foundation, where Mr. Mokhber worked in the early 2000s, is officially a charity but is described by the U.S. Treasury as “a key patronage network for the supreme leader” that includes holdings in key sectors of Iran’s economy, including finance, energy, construction and mining.

It is the subject of sanctions by the U.S. Treasury because it is controlled by Mr. Khamenei, and the Treasury said it was created in part “to confiscate and manage property, including that originally belonging to religious minorities” in Iran, including Baha’is and Jews.

The Treasury says the foundation funnels some of its money to individuals and entities in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that have been involved in terrorism and human rights abuses.

The Sina Bank has faced sanctions by the U.S. Treasury and the European Union for financing Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Mr. Mokhber appears to have risen to the top of Iran’s political leadership in part because of the close relationship he developed with Iran’s supreme leader, dating from at least 2007 when he joined the leadership of Setad. Within a few months of his appointment to Setad, Mr. Mokhber had founded the Barakat Foundation, which has a number of companies under its aegis including a major Iranian medical and pharmaceutical company.

While his relationship with the supreme leader will be important while elections are being organized, analysts say that a much larger group of high-ranking officials around Mr. Khamenei will determine how this sensitive period in Iran will be handled.

“The regime is at a tipping point — politically, economically, and even militarily,” Ms. Wright said, noting Iran’s large-scale aerial attack on Israel last month that was nearly entirely intercepted, which she called “a humiliating failure.”

Low turnout in parliamentary elections in March was also a sign of trouble for Iran’s theocracy, she added.

“It is very nervous about its future and the durability of its core ideology,” she said.

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting.

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