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What’s Next for Iran After President, Foreign Minister Die in Helicopter Crash?

Analyst Trita Parsi discusses the impact of the officials’ deaths on the future of Iran’s policies.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian were killed on Sunday in a helicopter crash along with several other officials and crew. Wreckage of the helicopter was found early Monday in a mountainous region of the country’s northwest following an overnight search in blizzard conditions. Raisi was returning from inaugurating a new dam built jointly with Azerbaijan along the two countries’ border. Raisi, 63, was elected in 2021 in a vote that saw the lowest-percentage turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history after major opposition candidates were disqualified from taking part. Analyst Trita Parsi says the president’s death will have little impact on the Islamic Republic’s policies, including barring dissident candidates from running for office. “Now the regime is going to have to try to whip up and mobilize voters and excitement for an election within 50 days,” he says. “And it has to make a decision: Is it actually going to allow other candidates to stand, or is it going to continue on the path that it has set out for itself in which these elections increasingly become rather meaningless in terms of actual democratic value?”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, and the foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, were killed on Sunday in a helicopter crash along with six other officials and crew. Iranian state TV gave no immediate cause of the crash after wreckage of the helicopter was found early Monday in a mountainous region of Iran’s northwest following an overnight search in blizzard conditions. Raisi was returning from Iran’s border with Azerbaijan to inaugurate a dam when the crash happened.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared five days of public mourning, announced Vice President Mohammad Mokhber would serve as Iran’s acting president until elections are held. The 63-year-old Raisi was elected in 2021 in a vote that saw the lowest-percentage turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history after major opposition candidates were disqualified from taking part.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Trita, welcome back to Democracy Now! If you can just respond to what has taken place in Iran? Talk about the death of the president and the foreign minister and what this means.

TRITA PARSI: This is, of course, a major event in Iran. Both the president and the foreign ministers and several others have died. And it’s something that is coming at a time when the Iranians already have an extremely low participation rate in the elections, and now they’re going to have to have elections within the next 50 days. As you pointed out, the only reason why Raisi got elected in the first place was because the majority of the population actually boycotted the elections and refused to partake because of the fact that the conservatives had shrunk the political spectrum in Iran and refused other candidates who were not conservatives to be able to even run in the first place. Now the regime is going to have to try to whip up and mobilize voters and excitement for an election within 50 days. And it has to make a decision: Is it actually going to allow other candidates to stand, or is it going to continue on the path that it has set out for itself in which these elections increasingly become rather meaningless in terms of actual democratic value?

And this is coming at a time when the regime is facing other potential crises, including the succession that will take place within a couple of years when the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, passes away. And again, Raisi was considered to be a potential candidate for that position, but obviously no longer.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about Raisi’s record, who he was, how close he was to the supreme leader, and also the foreign minister?

TRITA PARSI: So, Raisi was not particularly well known until a couple years ago, because he had spent most of his time in the judiciary. He’s a clergy. He is related by marriage to the supreme leader and, frankly, has not been a particularly impactful president or influential president. At the end of the day, he seems to have been selected precisely because he was pliant to the supreme leader, because he would not do what previous presidents had done, which was to actually challenge the supreme leader and the hard-line establishment. And Raisi clearly has not done that.

But if we were to take a look at what are the main policies that he’s been driven, it’s really difficult to identify them. Imagine if this had happened to Hassan Rouhani, the previous president, during the height of the nuclear negotiations, for instance. It would have thrown a major wrench into those negotiations, precisely because Rouhani was such a strong driving force for resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically. There is no equivalent to that with Raisi being a key driving force of such a policy or any major policy in which his absence will actually be particularly felt. If anything, most of the current policies of the Islamic Republic are likely going to continue unabated even with him being absent from the scene.

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t know the exact cause of the crash, although weather has certainly been talked about. I wanted to read this from AP, Trita: “Iran flies a variety of helicopters in the country, but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them. Its military air fleet also largely dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. IRNA published images it described as Raisi taking off in what resembled a Bell helicopter, with a blue-and-white paint scheme previously seen in published photographs.” And, you know, you have The Washington Post saying, “Iran, hampered by sanctions from getting parts and maintenance materials for government aircraft, has suffered several high-profile helicopter crashes in recent years.” Talk about this.

TRITA PARSI: Yeah. So, few countries have as many aircraft and helicopter crashes as Iran, which, to a very large extent, is due to the fact that the U.S. sanctions have prevented them from being able to service those planes and get spare parts for them. In fact, as part of the nuclear deal, the Iranians were going to buy a large number of Boeing aircraft, as well as getting Boeing to service the planes that Iran already had, its fleet mainly coming from the 1960s and ’70s. Boeing executives actually went — their technicians actually went to Iran to investigate the planes in return, and they concluded that they would not service those planes, because they were in such a bad shape that Boeing did not want to take on the liability of having serviced them, because they would likely crash even with that service, and Boeing would be liable at that point. So it refused to actually service those planes. That tells you something about how bad of a shape the Iranian fleet is. And this is, of course, overwhelmingly as a result of the sanctions.

AMY GOODMAN: The former foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, blamed the United States because of the embargo weakening their fleet, saying, “These will be recorded in the list of U.S. crimes against the Iranian people,” Trita.

TRITA PARSI: So, this is obviously a line that many in the government will take in Iran and point to these sanctions. But I think there’s also another message that comes with this, which is that they’re really pointing to this being an accident. And this is an effort for them to put to rest any speculation that perhaps there was some foul play, whether it was internal players or external players. At this moment, for instance, they will be adamant about denying that this had any — that Israel had anything to do with this, despite the fact that under normal circumstances, they would be rather quick to blame the Israelis. It would simply be too embarrassing to admit or even entertain the idea that the Israelis have the capacity to be able to, essentially, kill the Iranian president and foreign minister. OK, I want to be very clear here: There’s no evidence that Israel was involved. I’m just raising this as a point as to why they are very active in trying to blame this on an accident. It is because they want to put to rest any such rumors, not only because of the embarrassment, but also because they do not want to see an intensified infighting inside of the regime, mindful of the fact that Raisi was a contender for the next supreme leader.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, Raisi was in charge during the crackdown on protests that led to the deaths of many and imprisonment of many others after the death of Mahsa Amini. And then, this weekend, we got word that BBC reported that the jailed Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi says she’s facing a new trial after she accused the security forces of sexually assaulting women. She said in her statement that she was “dragged to the unjust and farcical courts’ table” again due to her “protest and disclosure of the religious regime’s men’s sexual assault against women.” What will happen, now that Raisi and the foreign minister are dead, when it comes to, you think, protest, when it comes to what’s happening with Mohammadi herself being dragged to court again?

TRITA PARSI: I don’t think this is going to be very likely to be an event that will cause new protests. At the end of the day, I think the very large number of people in Iran who are very, very unhappy with this regime recognize that Raisi was not that important of a figure. It will be a completely different situation when the supreme leader passes, for instance. I think you will see the regime orchestrate a tremendous amount of show of force, extra security in order to minimize any such risk, but you’re not likely going to see this galvanizing into a moment of protest.

And part of the reason for that is that the Mahsa Amini protests, unfortunately, from the standpoint of the protesters, they did not yield the type of changes that they wanted. It certainly changed Iran’s society’s perspective on the hijab, but not, you know, the call for the collapse of the regime as a whole. And it has led to a situation in which the population, who earlier on and still have kind of lost faith in the change through the ballot box, have now also lost faith in change through revolution. So, I don’t find this to be very likely to lead to that type of instability in the country or protest.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this mean for the Middle East? You have Hamas and Hezbollah expressing condolences. You have, though, next week. Wasn’t the United States and Iran to be in Amman meeting through a third party with Iran, overall, in these last months, saying they were tamping down attacks on the United States?

TRITA PARSI: I don’t see this having any impact on Iran’s relations with Hezbollah or Hamas, but I do think the latter point that you raised is an important one. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, we have seen how the United States and Iran have negotiated quietly behind the scene in order to be able to temper their own tensions and get an end to the attacks by Iraqi and Syrian militias that have been aligned with Iran against U.S. troops. The Iranians did put pressure on them to cease those attacks, because the Iranians don’t want to see a broader war in the region. If this leads to some sort of a debilitating crisis, not, you know, an existential crisis for the regime, but one in which they will be somewhat paralyzed in the foreseeable future, it can lead to a situation in which their control over some of these militias will weaken further, and that some of them, who, many of them, are more hawkish than Iran, more eager to take on the U.S., will actually restart their attacks on the United States. That would obviously be a very bad situation for the U.S. and the Biden administration, particularly mindful of the upcoming elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, we want to thank you for being with us, Iranian American, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

When we come back, the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli defense minister —

TRITA PARSI: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: — and three Hamas leaders: Yahya Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed Deif.. We’ll get the latest. Thirty seconds.

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