Iranian President Raisi, the ‘Butcher of Tehran,’ found dead at helicopter crash site

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, once seen as a leading candidate to become Tehran’s next supreme leader, was confirmed dead along with other officials Monday after their government helicopter crashed in a mountainous region in Iran’s eastern province over the weekend.

Mr. Raisi, a 63-year-old cleric and hard-liner known as the “Butcher of Tehran,” had helped oversee the mass executions of thousands in 1988 and later led the country as it enriched uranium near weapons-grade levels and launched a major drone-and-missile attack on Israel.

The Iranian military and the country’s Red Crescent Society had sent dozens of teams on foot into a remote area near the border with Azerbaijan to search for any signs of the weekend crash, and they found the remains.

The harsh weather conditions — especially thick fog in the area — made the operation difficult for rescue teams armed with drones and search dogs before the remains were found, according to the state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency.

State media gave no immediate cause for the crash.

SEE ALSO: Who is Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, appointed acting president after crash?

Among the dead was Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, 60. The helicopter also carried the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, other officials and bodyguards, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

Mr. Raisi was on the border with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev early Sunday to inaugurate a dam. The dam is the third built jointly by the two countries on the Aras River.

Mr. Aliyev said Sunday he was “profoundly troubled” after learning about the helicopter crash. The Iranian delegation also included Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.

“As a neighbor, friend, and brotherly country, the Republic of Azerbaijan stands ready to offer any assistance needed,” Mr. Aliyev said on X.

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have been tense. Tehran has been accused of supplying fuel to Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region in Azerbaijan where ethnic Armenians have battled government forces in recent years. As the Israel-Hamas war rages, Azerbaijan has maintained diplomatic relationships with Israel. Iran views the Jewish state as its primary enemy.

Iran launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel last month and has enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

U.S. President Biden was briefed by aides on the Iran crash, but administration officials did not learn much more than what was reported publicly by Iranian state media, a senior administration official said.

On Sunday, a State Department spokesperson had said officials were “closely following” the reports from Iran but offered “no further comment at this time.”

The regime’s Cabinet held an emergency session. Vice President Mohammad Mokhber directed government efforts to find the helicopter and Mr. Raisi’s entourage.

“Mokhber ordered Health Minister Bahram Einollahi and Deputy President for Executive Affairs Mohsen Mansouri to travel to the region where the copter is believed to have crashed to supervise search and rescue operations in the area,” IRNA had reported before the remains were found.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asked Iranians to pray for the health of those aboard the helicopter. The cleric, 85, had long been considered a mentor to Mr. Raisi.

Gabriel Noronha, a security analyst with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said the post of president in Iran’s government is relatively unimportant. The officeholder traditionally deals with domestic issues rather than national security or the country’s ideological direction, he said.

The Assembly of Experts, an 88-member body, will appoint the next supreme leader. Iranian pundits think the competition to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei will come down to Mr. Raisi or the supreme leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, Mr. Noronha said Sunday.

“If Raisi is dead, Mojtaba becomes heir apparent,” he said on Sunday. “A question is whether anyone else would rise to challenge Mojtaba in the internal machinations. If not, it’s his for the taking.”

Still, Tehran will open itself to criticism that it has become merely a hereditary monarchy dressed in Islamic clothing if the supreme leader is succeeded by his son, Mr. Noronha said.

“This would make it harder for the regime to differentiate itself from its predecessor Pahlavi government, which is becoming viewed more favorably in retrospect by Iranians today,” he said.

Mr. Raisi’s death or incapacitation wouldn’t change the Iran regime’s fundamental policies. Ayatollah Khamenei remains in office and is the country’s constitutional commander in chief, said Jason Brodsky, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“It has the potential to scramble the politics of succession in the Islamic republic with Raisi as a leading candidate as Khamenei’s successor,” Mr. Brodsky said. “Raisi is also the most qualified person by virtue of bureaucratic experience to succeed Khamenei. He has been the closest person ideologically to Khamenei since he took over as supreme leader in 1989.”

Mr. Raisi ran the country’s judiciary before becoming president and faced sanctions from the U.S. and other governments over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. He ran for president in 2017 and lost to Hassan Rouhani, who was considered moderate by comparison.

He again sought the presidency in 2021 in an election that barred his potential rivals from running for office. Mr. Raisi received about 72% of the ballots, and the election was widely considered a sham.

Amnesty International identified Mr. Raisi as a member of an Iranian government “death commission,” which carried out the executions of thousands of political dissidents in Evin and Gohardasht prisons near Tehran from July through September 1988. Most of the bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves. Amnesty called for Mr. Raisi to be criminally investigated for crimes against humanity after his election to the presidency.

“Ebrahim Raisi also oversaw the arbitrary arrests of thousands of peaceful protesters, dissidents, human rights defenders and members of ethnic and religious minorities,” Amnesty said in 2021. “Under his watch, the judiciary has granted blanket immunity to government officials and security forces responsible for unlawfully killing hundreds of men, women and children and subjecting thousands of protesters to mass arrests.”

Condolences started pouring in from neighbors and allies after Iran confirmed there were no survivors from the crash. Pakistan announced a day of mourning and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a post on X that his country “stands with Iran in this time of sorrow.” Leaders of Egypt and Jordan also offered condolences, as did Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Mr. Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Mr. Raisi was sanctioned by the U.S. in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

Under Mr. Raisi, Iran now enriches uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampers international inspections. Iran has armed Russia in its war on Ukraine, as well as launched a massive drone-and-missile attack on Israel amid its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It also has continued arming proxy groups in the Mideast, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, mass protests in the country have raged for years. The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been earlier detained over allegedly not wearing a hijab, or headscarf, to the liking of authorities. The monthslong security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and saw over 22,000 detained.

In March, a United Nations investigative panel found that Iran was responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.

Mr. Raisi is the second Iranian president to die in office. In 1981, a bomb blast killed President Mohammad Ali Rajai in the chaotic days after the country’s Islamic Revolution.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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