Mourners begin days of funerals for Iran’s president and others who died in helicopter crash

Mourners gather around a truck carrying the coffins of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his companions, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday in a mountainous region in the country's northwest, during a funeral ceremony in the city of Tabriz , Iran, on Tuesday.  May 21, 2024.

Mourners gather around a truck carrying the coffins of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his companions, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday in a mountainous region in the country’s northwest, during a funeral ceremony in the city of Tabriz , Iran, on Tuesday. May 21, 2024. Photo | AP

DUBAI: Mourners dressed in black began gathering Tuesday for the funerals and processions of Iran’s late President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and others. died in a helicopter crasha series of government-run ceremonies intended to both honor the dead and project strength in an unstable Middle East.

For Iran’s Shiite theocracy, mass demonstrations have been crucial since millions of people filled the streets of Tehran to welcome Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution, and also attended his funeral 10 years later. An estimated one million people attended processions in 2020 in honor of the late Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

It remains to be seen whether Raisi, Amirabdollahian and others draw the same crowd, particularly since Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash, won office in the lowest turnout presidential election in the country’s history and presided over sweeping crackdowns on all dissent. .

Prosecutors have already warned people not to show any public signs of celebrating his death and a heavy presence of security forces has been seen on the streets of Tehran since the accident.

But Raisi, 63, had been discussed as a possible successor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 85. His death now calls that election into question, particularly because there is no cleric heir apparent to the presidency ahead of elections scheduled for June 28.

“Raisi’s death comes at a time when the Islamist regime is consolidating,” wrote Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute. “In short, there will be no power vacuum in Tehran; however, post-Khamenei Iran suddenly looks much less predictable than it did just a few days ago.”

A procession Tuesday morning led by a truck carrying the coffins of the dead moved slowly through the narrow streets of central Tabriz, the major city closest to the site of Sunday’s accident.

Thousands of people dressed in black walked slowly past the coffins, some throwing flowers at them as a master of ceremonies wept through a loudspeaker for the men he described as martyrs. On Wednesday, a funeral presided over by Khamenei will also become a procession.

The coffins later arrived in Tehran with an honor guard at the airport. They will continue to the holy Shiite seminary city of Qom before returning to the Iranian capital.

It is not yet clear what international presence that funeral will draw, as Raisi faced US sanctions for his role in mass executions in 1988 and for abuses against protesters and dissidents while he led the country’s judiciary. Iran, under Raisi, also sent bomb-carrying drones to Russia to be used in its war against Ukraine.

“I do not feel comfortable sending my condolences while Iran sends drones that are used against civilians in Ukraine,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote on the X social platform.

UK Security Minister Tom Tugendhat echoed this in his own message on X: “President Raisi’s regime has murdered thousands of people in his country and attacked people here in Britain and across Europe. I will not mourn him.”

On Thursday, Raisi’s hometown of Birjand will witness a procession, followed by a funeral and burial at the shrine of Imam Reza in the holy city of Mashhad, the only imam of the Shiite faith buried in Iran.

That shrine has long been a center for pilgrims and receives millions of visitors each year. Over the centuries, its grounds have served as the final burial place for heroes of Persian history. It is an incredibly high and rare honor in the faith. Iranian President Mohammad-Ali Rajai, the only other president to die in office when he was killed in a bomb attack in 1981, was buried in Tehran.

The Iranian theocracy declared five days of mourning, encouraging people to attend public mourning sessions. Typically, government employees and schoolchildren flock to these events, while others participate out of patriotism, curiosity, or to witness historical events.

Throughout Iran, the rural population often more closely embraces the Shia faith and government. However, Tehran has long held a very different view of Raisi and his government’s policies, as mass protests have rocked the capital for years.

The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman detained for allegedly wearing a headscarf or hijab. The months-long security crackdown that followed the protests killed more than 500 people and detained more than 22,000.

In March, a United Nations investigative panel found that Iran was responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death. Meanwhile, Iran’s rial currency has plummeted following the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, destroying people’s savings and pensions.

On Sunday night, as news of the helicopter crash circulated, some sang anti-government chants into the night. Fireworks could be seen in some parts of the capital, although Sunday also marked a remembrance of Imam Reza, who can also see them go off. Critical messages and dark jokes about the accident also circulated online.

Iran’s top prosecutor has already issued an order demanding that cases be filed against those “publishing false content, lies and insults” against Raisi and others who died in the crash, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

Iran’s government has yet to offer any cause for the crash, which took place in a foggy mountain range in a decades-old helicopter. Iranian presidents, including hardliners Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Abolhasan Banisadr, survived their own helicopter crashes while in office.

Officials say Iran’s military, not its civil aviation authority, will investigate and then provide a report. Iran’s civilian air crash investigators faced widespread international criticism for their reporting on the downing of a Ukrainian airliner by an air defense battery in 2020 after Soleimani’s assassination.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Iran’s new Assembly of Experts opened its first session after an election decided by the new assembly, a panel of which both Raisi and the late Tabriz Friday leader Mohammad Ali Ale-Heshem were members.

A portrait surrounded by flowers occupied the seat Raisi would have occupied at the meeting of the 88-member panel, which is tasked with selecting the country’s next supreme leader.

They also attended The interim president of Iran, Mohammad Mokhber..