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Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi dies in helicopter crash, state media reports


Russia is sending troops toward Ukraine's second largest city while saying they do not intend to capture it. We'll analyze their strategy in a moment.


But first, to Iran, where the president has died.

INSKEEP: Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in Northern Iran. He'd been flying with the foreign minister who was also killed. Raisi was not really the top official in a country where clerics hold supreme power, but he was the top elected official, and the foreign minister routinely shuttled through the region as Iran worked its alliances against enemies, including Israel and the United States.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the story from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.


MARTIN: So just start by telling us what more you can about the crash.

KENYON: Well, yes, it - for President Raisi, it was a disastrous end to what started out as a pretty routine day. He had traveled to the border with Azerbaijan. He was there to inaugurate a new joint dam project. That all went well. After the ceremony, Raisi and his entourage boarded three helicopters and headed for another event up in Northern Tabriz - city in Iran. Two of the helicopters made it no problem, but the state media earlier today started posting images purporting to show the crash site of the third helicopter in mountainous terrain in East Azerbaijan Province. And the reports quoted the head of Iran's Red Crescent Society as saying there was no trace of survivors.

MARTIN: What has been the reaction to Raisi's death?

KENYON: Well, the government in Tehran convened an emergency meeting right away after the news broke. And Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei named Iran's first vice president, a man named Mohammad Mokhber, as acting president for now. He's not very well known but has held some key positions. The Iranian cabinet released a statement lauding Raisi as a hardworking president who made the ultimate sacrifice on the path of serving his nation. And Hamas, the Iran-backed proxy militia, expressed complete solidarity with Iran.

Now, others who know of Raisi's longtime career as a hard-line cleric had varying reactions. He was a protege of Supreme Leader Khamenei, and critics have long condemned his role, Raisi's role, in the committees known as death squads back in the 1980s. They handed down thousands of death sentences to political prisoners. Raisi's been called the supreme leader's enforcer. Recently, he was seen as a supporter of the violent crackdown on women who had failed to comply with Iran's strict Islamic dress code, the hijab.

And his government's been the target of massive protests that spread all across the country following the death of one young Kurdish Iranian woman at the hands of Iran's infamous morality police. Those protests were described as the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic in its history.

MARTIN: Look, as Steve just mentioned, this is a cleric-led government, so he's not the supreme figure, but he was the highest elected official. So what does all this mean? And what do you think this sort of foretells, this all coming at a time of high tensions, especially with Iran's longtime regional adversary, which is Israel.

KENYON: Well, that's very true. And it's an important point. Iran is a longtime backer of these proxy militias around the region. And of course, last October, it was Hamas that broke out of the Gaza strip, killed some 1,200 people, Israel says. The Israli military responded with a long operation. It's still ongoing inside Gaza as the death toll of both fighters and civilians mounts. In addition, after an Israel strike killed two Iranian generals in Syria, Tehran launched a massive barrage of missiles and drones, and they were mostly all shot down by Israel, the U.S., and other allies. They've signaled a reluctance to continue escalating hostilities. But in a volatile region like the Middle East, there's no guarantee that will continue to be the case.

MARTIN: So what happens next?

KENYON: Well, they're supposed to have elections. They need a new president. They have an acting president. The one thing we do know is whoever is the next president, he will serve under the supreme leader, who has the final say on all major policy matters.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Peter Kenyon. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.