Mourners begin days of funerals for Iran’s president

Mourners have begun gathering for days of funerals and processions for Iran’s late president, foreign minister and others killed in a helicopter crash, aimed at honoring the dead and projecting strength in an unsettled Middle East.

For Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy, mass demonstrations have been crucial since millions thronged 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 turned out in 2020 for processes for the late Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, who was slain in a US drone strike in Baghdad.

Mourners flocked around the caskets as they slowly moved through the streets of Tabriz. (AP PHOTO)

Whether President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and others drew the same crowd remains in question, particularly as Raisi died in a helicopter crash, won his office in the lowest-turnout presidential election in the country’s history and presided over sweeping crackdowns on dissent.

Prosecutors have already warned people about showing any public signs of celebrating his death and a heavy security presence has been seen on the streets of Tehran since the crash.

But Raisi, 63, had been discussed as a possible successor for Iran’s supreme leader, the 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

His death throws that selection into question, particularly as there is no heir-apparent cleric for the presidency before planned June 28 elections.

A procession on Tuesday morning led by a truck carrying the caskets of the dead slowly moved through the streets of Tabriz, the closest major city near the site of the crash on Sunday.

Thousands in black walked beside the coffins as an emcee wept through a loudspeaker for men he described as martyrs.

On Wednesday, a funeral presided over by Khamenei will turn into a procession as well.

The crash happened in a foggy mountain range in a decades-old helicopter in northwestern Iran. (AP PHOTO)

The caskets later arrived in Tehran to an honor guard at the airport.

They will go on to the holy Shi’ite seminary city of Qom before returning to the Iranian capital.

It remains unclear what international presence that funeral will draw, as Raisi faced US sanctions for his part in mass executions in 1988 and for abuses targeting protesters and dissidents while leading the country’s judiciary.

Iran under Raisi also shipped bomb-carrying drones to Russia to be used in its war on Ukraine.

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

Iran’s theocracy declared five days of mourning, encouraging people to attend the public mourning sessions.

Iran’s rural population often more closely embraces the Shi’ite faith and the government.

It remains unclear what international presence the funeral of President Ebrahim Raisi will draw. (AP PHOTO)

But Tehran has long held a far different view of Raisi and his government’s policies as mass protests have roiled the capital for years.

The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman detained over her allegedly loose headscarf, or hijab.

The months-long security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and resulted in more than 22,000 detained.

Meanwhile, Iran’s rial currency has cratered after 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 offered anti-government chants in the night.

Critical messages and dark jokes about the crash also circulated online.

No cause has yet been offered by Iran’s government for the crash, which took place in a foggy mountain range in a decades-old helicopter in northwestern Iran.

Iran’s military, not its civil aviation authority, will investigate and later offer a report, authorities say.