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TEHRAN: Pictures show empty seats of Iran's late President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian during a cabinet meeting on May 20, 2024, following a plane crash in which they were both killed the previous day. - AFP
TEHRAN: Pictures show empty seats of Iran's late President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian during a cabinet meeting on May 20, 2024, following a plane crash in which they were both killed the previous day. - AFP

Iran mourns Raisi’s demise

Amir sends condolences • Interim president, foreign minister appointed

TEHRAN: Iranians on Monday mourned the death of President Ebrahim Raisi when his helicopter crashed into a fog-shrouded mountain, setting off a period of political uncertainty in the Islamic republic. Raisi, 63, his foreign minister and seven others died when the aircraft went down on Sunday in a remote area of northwestern Iran, where the wreckage was only found on Monday morning. The ultraconservative Raisi had been in office since 2021.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields ultimate power in Iran, declared five days of mourning and said Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, 68, would assume interim presidential duties until elections are held within 50 days. “The Iranian nation has lost a sincere and valuable servant,” said 85-year-old Khamenei, whom Raisi had been expected to one day succeed by many observers.

HH the Amir Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah sent on Monday a cable of condolences to Mokhber over the demise of Raisi and his accompanying delegation in a helicopter crash. HH the Amir also expressed similar sentiments to the families of the deceased, wishing them and the Iranian people patience and solace. HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Al-Abdullah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah also sent a cable of condolences to Mokhber, expressing his sincere condolences and deep sympathy to the families of the victims and the Iranian people.

Thousands of mourners massed in central Tehran’s Valiasr Square to pay their respects to Raisi as well as to Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Iran’s onetime top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri was appointed as acting foreign minister. Funeral rites were set to start Tuesday in Tabriz, East Azerbaijan province, for them and the other victims — three crew, two bodyguards, an imam and a provincial governor — before Raisi’s body was to be taken to Tehran. Iran’s military chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri ordered “a high-ranking committee to launch an investigation into the cause of the president’s helicopter crash”.

State TV broke the news early Monday that “the servant of the Iranian nation, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, has achieved the highest level of martyrdom”, showing pictures of him as a voice recited the Holy Quran. Flags soon flew at half-mast and a black banner was hoisted at a major Shiite shrine in city of Qom south of Tehran. Global allies Russia and China and regional powers voiced their condolences, as did NATO, while the UN Security Council observed a minute of silence.

Condolences also came from Palestinian group Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and from Syria, all members of the so-called Axis of Resistance against the Zionist entity and its allies, amid high tensions over the Gaza war. No such message was received from the United States, which had placed Raisi, a former head of the judiciary, on its sanctions blacklist for complicity in “serious human rights violations”. Tehran has rejected those charges as null and void.

The price of gold hit a record high in the morning as the shock news boosted support for the precious metal seen as a haven investment. But analysts did not expect major changes, pointing out that ultimate power in Iran is held by the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who work with a regional network of armed groups.

“It will be (the) status quo,” Jason Brodsky, an expert at the Middle East Institute, told the BBC of Iran’s relations with these groups. “The IRGC reports to the supreme leader and liaises with Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hamas and the militias across the region. The modus operandi and the grand strategy of the Islamic republic will remain the same.”

Iranian authorities first raised the alarm on Sunday afternoon when they lost contact with Raisi’s helicopter as it returned from a border meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to inaugurate a dam. Only two of the convoy’s three helicopters landed in Tabriz, setting off a massive search and rescue effort, with multiple foreign governments soon offering help.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi at first spoke of a “hard landing” and urged citizens to ignore hostile foreign media channels and get their information “only from state television”. Guards, army and police personnel joined the search as Red Crescent teams trudged up a steep hillside in the rain while rows of emergency services vehicles waited nearby.

As the sun rose Monday, rescue crews said they had located the destroyed Bell 212 helicopter, with no survivors. State TV reported that the aircraft had “hit a mountain and disintegrated” on impact, and the Red Crescent soon confirmed that “the search operations have come to an end”. Raisi had in 2021 succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani. In March 2023, regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia signed a surprise deal that restored diplomatic relations.

The Gaza war sent tensions soaring and a series of tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at the Zionist entity in April. In a speech hours before his death, Raisi emphasized Iran’s support for the Palestinians, a centerpiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution. “We believe that Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world,” said Raisi. Hamas hailed Raisi as an “honorable supporter”, Hezbollah mourned “a protector of the resistance movements” and Yemen’s Houthis declared his death a loss “for the entire Islamic world”. – Agencies

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