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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials found dead at helicopter crash site

By Indira Zaldivar & Edward Saenz

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister, and several other officials died in a helicopter crash in Varzaghan, northwestern Iran. The crash occurred in foggy, mountainous terrain, making rescue operations challenging. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei quickly named Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as caretaker and assured the public of government stability despite the loss.

The crash resulted in the deaths of all eight aboard, including Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and other high-ranking officials. State media did not suggest sabotage but noted Iran’s history of aircraft maintenance issues due to Western sanctions. Former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed the U.S. for the tragedy, citing sanctions as a barrier to acquiring necessary aviation parts.

The incident comes at a tumultuous time for Iran, with ongoing regional tensions, including the Israel-Hamas conflict and Iran’s recent drone-and-missile attack on Israel. Raisi, a hard-liner with close ties to Khamenei, was known for his confrontational stance toward the West and his role in enriching uranium close to weapons-grade levels. His government also faced mass protests over economic issues and women’s rights, further complicating the political landscape.

The helicopter crash has intensified speculation about Iran’s future leadership. Raisi was seen as a potential successor to the 85-year-old Khamenei, raising concerns about the stability of Iran’s theocratic regime. Khamenei declared five days of mourning, and condolences poured in from global leaders, reflecting the international impact of Raisi’s death.

Despite the leadership vacuum, the Iranian government pledged continuity. An emergency cabinet meeting was held, and Mokhber began receiving calls from foreign officials. Iran’s Constitution mandates a new presidential election within 50 days, signaling a period of transition and uncertainty for the nation.

Raisi’s tenure saw significant geopolitical moves, including support for Russia in Ukraine and arming proxy groups in the Middle East. His death marks a critical juncture for Iran as it navigates internal and external challenges amidst a backdrop of economic hardship and regional instability.