Iran’s president dies in copter crash as tensions rack the Mideast
Rescuers found the crash site after daybreak on Monday. AP

Underlying the region-wide tensions and war engulfing the Mideast as the Israeli military destroys Gaza, the U.S. bombs South Yemen, and conflicts rise elsewhere in the region were remarks about the crash made by an Iranian leader today

The crash killed all eight people aboard a Bell helicopter, which Iran purchased from the U.S. company in the early 2000s, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. In addition to the president, included in the list of the dead were Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, a senior cleric from Tabriz, a Revolutionary Guard Official, and three crew members, according to the Iranians.

Iran has flown Bell helicopters extensively since the Shah’s era. Aircraft in Iran face a shortage of parts, because of U.S. sanctions. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed the United States for the crash in an interview today.

“One of the main culprits of yesterday’s tragedy is the United States, which … embargoed the sale of aircraft and aviation parts to Iran and does not allow the people of Iran to enjoy good aviation facilities,” Zarif said. “These will be recorded in the list of U.S. crimes against the Iranian people.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in the theocratic government, quickly named a vice president as caretaker and said the government was in control.

Iran has offered no specific cause for the crash nor suggested sabotage brought down the helicopter, which fell in mountainous terrain in a sudden, intense fog.

The crash comes as the Israeli war on Gaza rocks the entire Mideast region. Last month, Iran launched a drone attack on Israel which was turned back by Israel and its allies. Iran is facing enormous pressures from sanctions from abroad and also from protests against the lack of democracy inside the country,

President Raisi was viewed as a protege of Ayatollah Khamenei, the theocratic ruler of Iran who has the final say over all matters of domestic and international importance. There have been massive protests against his government over both economic and human rights issues. The Iranian economy is hurting from U.S. sanctions, causing severe economic difficulty and its record on women’s rights has also elicited mass protests inside the country.

Left, communist, progressive, and pro-labor forces in Iran are highly critical of the theocratic dictatorship in place there.

In a recent statement, Navid Shomali, foreign minister of the Tudeh (communist) Party in Iran said that “to defend the Iranian state as a force for anti-imperialism is, at best, naive—and, at worst, deliberately relegates the brutal repression, crushing poverty and socioeconomic misery suffered by the people of Iran as inconsequential or unworthy of consideration.

“It is also an affront,” Shomali said, “to Iran’s left and progressive forces who continue to struggle valiantly to bring about the transition of their country from a situation of dictatorship to one where a national democratic transformation is possible. The struggles for democracy,” he added, “human rights, social justice, and against dictatorship go hand in hand with those for peace, sovereignty, and against imperialism. They are interdependent and inseparable.”

He said that the dictatorship there actually is carrying out the interests of a powerful Iranian capitalist class, explaining, in particular, repressive measures against workers, including the banning of trade unions.

The U.S., which has done nothing to contribute to the struggle for democracy in Iran or anywhere else in the Middle East, has yet to comment publicly on Raisi’s death. Ali Bagheri Kani, a nuclear negotiator for Iran, will serve as the country’s acting foreign minister, state TV said.

Condolences came from neighbors and allies after Iran confirmed there were no survivors from the crash. The right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a post on the social media platform X that his country “stands with Iran in this time of sorrow.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a statement released by the Kremlin, described Raisi “as a true friend of Russia.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, China’s Xi Jinping, and Syrian President Bashar Assad also offered condolences. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, said he and his government were “deeply shocked.” Raisi, 63, was returning Sunday from Iran’s border with Azerbaijan, where he inaugurated a dam with Aliyev when the crash happened.

Raisi had been discussed as one possible candidate for the role of Supreme Leader. Another person so far suggested has been Khamenei’s 55-year-old son, Mojtaba.

Such a move may be politically difficult for the current Supreme Leader. The theocratic leadership still points out that it came to power after a revolution that overthrew the undemocratic, hereditary leadership of the Pahlavi family of the Shah. That family was installed in power by the U.S. after it overthrew a democratically-elected socialist government in Iran in the 1950s, laying the basis for many of the problems that have plagued the country since then.

For now, Khamenei has named the first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, as caretaker, in line with the constitution, which says a new presidential election should be called within 50 days.

Raisi, the president killed in the crash, was elected in 2021 in the lowest turnout election ever in the history of the Islamic Republic.