Death of Iranian President Raisi jolts already tense Mideast

Iran's president oversees domestic affairs, but country ultimately run by 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Published: May 19, 2024 6:49pm

Updated: May 20, 2024 8:31am

The deadly crash of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi jolted an already tense Mideast and raised major questions about the future of the Islamic Republic in a region where Iran is a major financier of terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis.

Officials early Monday declared that there were no signs of life at the crash site in the mountainous area near Iran’s border with Azerbaijan.

"President Raisi's helicopter was completely burned in the crash ... unfortunately, all passengers are feared dead," one Iranian official told Reuters.

The news prompted major questions:

Who will take over Iran?

While the Iranian president oversees domestic affairs, the country is ultimately run by 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

When an Iranian president dies, Iran's first vice president, in this case, Mohammed Mokhber, takes over, and an election is held 50 days later. 

Khamenei announced Monday that Mokhber would serve as the country’s acting president until elections are held.

Raisi, who was elected president in 2021, is known as the "butcher of Tehran" for overseeing the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s. His presidency was also marked by harsh crackdowns on dissent, such as the 2022 protests that began over the death of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after she was arrested for allegedly improperly wearing her hijab. Raisi was believed to be in a race against Mojtaba Khamenei, Ali Khamenei's 55-year-old son, to be the supreme leader, according to Gabriel Noronha, a former State Department advisor on Iran under the Trump administration.

Will this escalate tensions in the region?

While the helicopter crashed amid poor weather in the region, and there is no evidence that Israel is connected to the incident, there is speculation that the Islamic Republic may still try to blame Israel.

"Of course, there will be some people who will try to hint at some involvement of [Israel], which of course is not true," former Israel Defense Forces Cmdr. Doron Avital said on Israel's i24NEWS English after the crash. He said Israel "would never participate in such an act," but he speculated that it was an accident or an insider may be responsible. 

At least one major Chinese media account on X, formerly Twitter, has hinted toward Israeli involvement in Raisi's crash. Meanwhile, in an apparent joke that is being broadcast seriously as news, multiple anti-Israel channels on the platform Telegram are claiming that a Mossad agent named Eli Cobter was responsible for the helicopter crash. 

Things have already been tense between Iran and Israel after Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel after blaming the Jewish state for airstrikes in Syria that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officials. Israel responded with a counterstrike on Iran, which Tehran downplayed the severity of, according to some experts

What will happen to Iran's proxies?

Iran has been funding Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis, all of which have launched an increased stream of attacks on Israel since the initial Oct. 7, 2023, terrorist attack from Gaza that killed about 1,200 people. 

The terrorist groups appear to be holding back any major response to the news of Raisi's helicopter crash. Meanwhile, if Khamenei's son takes power, it seems highly unlikely that he would stop funding the proxies.

Follow Madeleine Hubbard on  X or Instagram.

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