The Questions Lingering Around the Death of Iran’s President

7 minute read
Kay Armin Serjoie is an Iranian journalist who has reported from Tehran for TIME, AFP and the Washington Post. He is now based in Europe.

When the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi went missing on May 19, initial reports said nine passengers were on board, including two bodyguards. But after the wreckage was finally found, the number of bodies was eight. Four days later, the mystery of the second bodyguard was revealed in social media posts: Javad Mehrabl is seen leaning disconsolately in the rear of the memorial service for Raisi. Press accounts said that, at the last minute, his boss, Mehdi Mousavi, had directed him from the President’s helicopter to one of the two others moving in convoy that day.

After Mousavi died in the crash, his father told Iranian state television that he knew his son would not return from this trip. “The night before the trip he visited us,” the father says on camera. “He said goodbye and got into his car but returned and stayed 20 minutes. Then he left but after a short drive he returned again and spent 10 more minutes with us.” He grows choked up. “The third time when saying goodbye he kissed his mother, he kissed his mother’s feet, he kissed me, and then bent down and kissed my feet.

“It was then I knew he would go and never return, I knew we would never meet again.”

The bodyguards were members of a special unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military force created in 1979 to replace an Iranian army distrusted by the country’s new theocratic government. Their unit, Sepah Ansar al-Mahdi, is responsible for the personal security of the regime’s senior officials. To that end, its members carry phones specially equipped not only for secure communication, but also for location tracking. The device Mousavi carried on board presumably would have been useful in locating the helicopter, which went down in rugged terrain not far from Iran’s border with Azerbaijan. Yet it took 16 hours for rescuers to reach it.

The Sepah does not appear to be under suspicion, at least by Iran’s most senior official: In one photo from the funeral for Raisi and other victims, Sepah bodyguards account for a good two-thirds of the people arrayed behind Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His throat is warmed, as usual, by the cross-hatched scarf of the IRGC that signals his closeness to the Guard.

More than a week after Raisi was killed, mysterious questions persist not only about the crash, but also about what will come next.

A truck carrying the coffins of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian and others is driven through a throng of mourners during a funeral procession in Tehran on May 22, 2024.
A truck carrying the coffins of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian and others is driven through a throng of mourners during a funeral procession in Tehran on May 22, 2024. Arash Khamooshi—The New York Times/Redux

Some of the questions have explanations: The transponder on an aircraft carrying senior officials reportedly was switched off as a matter of routine, out of fear of tracking by hostile governments. When the helicopter went down, on a wooded hilltop in northwest Iran, one passenger survived long enough to retrieve the pilot’s ringing cell phone, tried to describe the area, and died awaiting rescue. Sparse cell coverage would have hampered efforts to locate it by triangulation.

Still other questions might be answered by forensic technical investigation. Raisi’s chief of staff, who was flying on another chopper, said that shortly before disappearing, the President’s pilot ordered the other helicopters to climb in altitude in order to rise above clouds clinging to the hills. The other aircraft did so, but the President’s helicopter was not heard from again.

And some information, while intriguing, is open to interpretation. Iranians might put the father’s story, for instance, to some premonition accessible to the devout.

But others will hear it as evidence of plot—something not unprecedented in a regime known both for its opacity and its brutality. Raisi’s elderly mother added to the speculation when she appeared in a video, visibly upset and calling for the death of “anyone who killed you other than God.”

Her son was widely assumed to be in the running to succeed Khamenei, who is 85 and frequently reported to be in failing health. Raisi was supported in that effort by the most extreme faction of regime stalwarts, the Paydari Front. As President, Raisi had imposed the crackdown on “modesty” that in 2022 ensnared Mahsa (Jina) Amini, who died in the custody of the so-called morality police for allegedly improper hijab. He was also the face of the regime’s brutal confrontation of the uprising her death inspired—and blamed for the brutal deaths of more than 500 Iranians in the spontaneous movement that took “Woman, Life, Freedom” as its slogan. That he died returning from the inauguration of a dam called Qiz-Qalasi, or Fort of Girls, struck some as poetic justice.

Human rights groups knew Raisi as a member of the so called “Death Committee” that in 1988 ordered the summary execution of thousands of dissidents, described by regime officials themselves as "the biggest atrocity of the Islamic Republic... for which we will be condemned by history.”

Relatively unknown to the general populace just 10 years ago, Raisi had been fast tracked to national prominence just as the issue of Khamenei’s succession was gaining urgency. Rumors persist that the Supreme Leader has plans for his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, to succeed him. When, in a speech just hours after Raisi’s helicopter had gone missing, Khamenei prayed for his safe return but stressed that “the people should be confident that there will be no disturbance in the affairs of state.” His calm manner did not go unnoticed.

This would not be the first time that someone who did not share Khamenei’s vision for Iran’s future leadership had met a suspicious end. In 2017, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died in a swimming pool. A founder of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani had been instrumental in propelling Khamenei to the top job. But in the decades that followed, they fell out so thoroughly that, by the time of his death, Rafsanjani was known as the top opponent of the Supreme Leader within the regime. When Rafsanjani’s family reported that his body recorded radioactive readings many times higher than safe levels, they requested an autopsy. The request was denied and, shortly afterwards, the case was closed.

So it was that, in the first hours after the helicopter crash, a battle emerged to define its meaning. An analysis of social media showed that 22% of X accounts involved in the discussions of the crash were fake, “operating within a sophisticated disinformation campaign” with a “potential to reach 6 million views” in the first two days, according to the cyber-security company Cyabra.

Cyabra, which is based in Tel Aviv, says it documented a conspiracy theory circulating online that maintained a Mossad agent named “Eli Copter” had caused the crash. The name had been lifted from a joke posted on Hebrew social media, but Israel’s spy agency has killed several senior Iranian nuclear scientists and military figures in recent years. Though any role in Raisis’s death was denied by Israel officials and discounted by Israeli analysts, the thought occurs.

Only two months earlier, in retaliation for an Israeli strike on an Iranian consulate building in Syria that killed two senior generals, Tehran launched some 300 missiles and drones toward Israel—its first direct attack on Israeli territory. After Iraq launched Scud missiles into Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, Israel laid plans to assassinate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, calling it off after a rehearsal ended in the accidental deaths of five Israeli commandos.

Another of the campaigns promoted by the fake accounts put forward the “narrative that portrays Raisi as a national hero,” using the same hashtags as his supporters did. Fake accounts were also involved in the narrative that criticized him, though the public outbursts celebrating his death were real enough. Clips that showed families of those killed by the regime shouting and dancing in joy became so bold that police began arresting anyone they deemed to have “insulted” Raisi online.

The authorities might have hoped that the death of a President while performing his duty would garner some sympathy for the Islamic Republic. But the divide between regime and society seems too deep to be bridged by Raisi’s death.

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