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Rescue team members work at the crash site of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, in northwestern Iran, on 20 May 2024. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was declared dead on 20 May after rescue teams found his crashed helicopter in a fog-shrouded western mountain region, sparking mourning in the Islamic republic. (Photo by AZIN HAGHIGHI/MOJ News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

Iranian President Killed in Helicopter Crash

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and nine other people were killed in a helicopter crash on 19 May. Early this morning, relief workers located the missing helicopter, which went down amid heavy fog in the mountainous northwest region of Iran near the Azerbaijan border, Iranian state television confirmed. Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, was also killed.

Raisi, 63, was in the area to participate in a ceremony to inaugurate a dam with the president of Azerbaijan. Iranian state media has not confirmed the cause of the crash, although “in Iran’s conspiratorial political culture few will believe Raisi’s death was accidental,” said Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior fellow and Iran expert, on X (formerly Twitter).

The crash happened in an especially fraught time in the Middle East—between Iran and Israel in particular. Israel conducted an airstrike earlier this year that hit the Iranian consulate in Syria, and Iran retaliated with a missile and drone bombardment. Israel then responded by launching a strike against an air defense system in Isfahan, Iran.

“The sides have waged a shadow war of covert operations and cyberattacks for years, but the exchange of fire in April was their first direct military confrontation,” according to the Associated Press (AP). “The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has drawn in other Iranian allies, with each attack and counterattack threatening to set off a wider war. It’s a combustible mix that could be ignited by unexpected events, such as Sunday’s deadly crash.”

Raisi was a hard-liner viewed as a possible successor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Since he became president in 2021, Raisi has been head of the judiciary and ordered a crackdown on women’s dress codes. He oversaw a brutal repression of nationwide protests over those same restrictions and the death in custody of Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by morality police for allegedly violating Iran’s “hijab and chastity law,” NPR reported. Hundreds of people were killed in the protests and crackdown.

So, what comes next?

Vice President Mohammad Mokhber has been appointed as acting president and Ali Bagheri Kani has been appointed acting foreign minister. The three heads of the different branches of government—vice president, speaker of the parliament, and head of the judiciary—must arrange for an election and elect a new leader within 50 days. Analysts say that there is no clear frontrunner for the presidency. Five days of public mourning have been declared, and all cultural and arts activities have been cancelled in Iran for the next week, CNN reported.

Leaders worldwide, mostly from countries in the Middle East, have sent their condolences, as well as leaders from Iranian-backed militias such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Sanctions likely played a role in the crash, according to an Al Jazeera interview with aviation analyst and consultant Alex Macheras. Because of decades-long sanctions against Iran, the Iranian fleet of aircraft is old and deteriorating.

“This is a country that, because of the sanctions has struggled to obtain spare parts. In aviation, spare parts are fundamental in order to provide adequate maintenance not least to young jets, but especially to the older jets that need extra care,” Macheras told Al Jazeera.

“When aircraft are not receiving the maintenance that is required, you end up into a territory that puts ultimately the lives of those onboard on older aircraft at risk,” he added.

Since 1979, about 2,000 Iranians have died in aircraft crashes.