Fog of the Future

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-line protégé of the country’s supreme leader who cracked down on anti-government protests and dissent over the country’s morality laws, died after a helicopter carrying Raisi, the foreign minister and other officials crashed Sunday in northwestern Iran, the Associated Press reported.

The chopper went down in thick fog in East Azerbaijan province, where search teams struggled for hours in mountainous terrain and poor weather to reach the crash site. Nine people were killed in the crash, according to Sabreen News, which is affiliated with Iranian-backed militias.

The deaths of some of the country’s top leaders come at a time of turmoil in the wider region, as the war in Gaza has escalated tensions. Raisi, 63, led the country as it has engaged in a regional war that encompasses direct military action by Iran and its network of regional proxies, which includes a direct attack on Israel earlier this year, the Washington Post wrote.

A cleric, Raisi was also known as a “hanging judge,” for his harsh sentences as a prosecutor in Tehran. He sent thousands of political prisoners to the gallows in 1988, for example.

He ran for president in 2017 but lost to the relatively moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani. But four years later, he won the vote, which was carefully managed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to clear any major opposition candidate.

He took over the presidency after Rouhani’s signature nuclear deal with world powers was in tatters after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord.

But while saying he wanted to rejoin the deal, Raisi’s new administration instead pushed back against international inspections, in part over an ongoing suspected sabotage campaign carried out by Israel targeting its nuclear program.

His death also comes as Iran struggles with internal dissent, especially as anti-government protests, which shook the country after they ignited in September 2022, and continue to smolder in spite of a violent crackdown. Still, Raisi was an unpopular president among some of the ruling clerics and the military too, even as he did not have the final say in policy – Iran’s supreme leader does.

Part of that was blame for the dire state of the economy which has seen the country’s currency, the rial, lose 55 percent of its value in less than three years.

Now, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber will assume the presidency if approved by Iran’s supreme leader, according to the country’s constitution. Elections are to be held within 50 days.

Raisi’s death is likely to lead to a power struggle in the country between the clerics and the military, wrote the Economist.

“His death will nonetheless shake Iranian politics,” the magazine wrote. “It will force the regime to find a new president in short order at a difficult time … And Raisi’s death could also throw Iran’s looming struggle into chaos, by removing one of the two leading candidates for (Supreme Leader) Khamenei’s job.”

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