Will Iran blame Israel for the helicopter crash? The finger-pointing has already begun

News coverage at the site of the crash
The helicopter carrying the Iranian president crashed
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It did not take long for the first accusations of foul play to appear on Iranian state television following the announcement that Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s president, had died in a helicopter crash.

Most reports, for now, focus on the poor, foggy conditions the craft was flying near the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, as well as the ageing nature of Iran’s fleet.

There have not been formal claims that the helicopter was tampered with on the ground or during its flight. In his first comments on Monday morning with regards to the incident, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, called the crash an “unfortunate incident” and stopped short of suggesting foul play or blaming Israel.

But it is, at the least, an unfortunate time for an Iranian leader to fall victim to an accident: the Islamic Republic is engaged in an increasingly open war with Israel, inviting Western pressure with its support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, but also facing ongoing resistance on its own streets.

Conspiracy theories have sprung to life on social media – and some parts of Iranian state television have nurtured them.

Foad Izadi, an analyst on state television, said: “When a helicopter faces an accident, it might be caused by a technical issue or maybe weather conditions – but there are also other scenarios.”

Referring to Israel and its powerful intelligence service, he added: “We have an issue in the republic of Azerbaijan and that is the presence of the Zionists and Mossad in that region. It will be investigated. We have respect for our neighbours but we should not get targeted from their territories.”

The question now emerges of whether the Iranian state will accept the narrative of an accident or promote the idea of some kind of assassination. After all, Raisi’s crash comes just weeks after Iran launched its first-ever direct attack on Israel, bringing their shadow war out into the open following the Oct 7 Hamas attack.

President Ebrahim Raisi's death on front pages in Tehran
President Ebrahim Raisi's death on front pages in Tehran - ATTA KENARE/AFP

Should hard-liners choose to pursue the allegations of a hit on the president, it could inflame tensions that have cooled somewhat since the strike. There are also serious questions of governance that Iran must ask itself in the coming hours.

Before news of Raisi’s death was confirmed, the supreme leader said there would be “no disruption” to the business of government. Mohammad Mokhber, Iran’s first vice president, will take the helm for now. Elections must be held in 50 days, though Khamenei may instead handpick someone to fill the job to avoid opening polls at such a complicated time.

And there is the more significant question of who will succeed Khamenei, now 85, and had been grooming Raisi as a potential heir. Front and centre is Mojtaba Khamenei, son of the supreme leader, whose name means “chosen”.

Successions can be a difficult period in any country –  there is always a risk they produce unsatisfactory or chaotic results. But for a hard-line regime like the Islamic Republic, it will also raise fears over whether the ruling elite will begin to lose control. The past couple of years have been punctuated by serious challenges to its foundations.

Ebrahim Raisi in the helicopter with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian before reports of a crash emerged
Ebrahim Raisi in the helicopter with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian before reports of a crash emerged - UNPIXS

Many women have openly defied the mandatory rule to wear headscarves since mass protests broke out nationwide in late 2022, in a response to the treatment of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after she was detained by morality police for improperly wearing the hijab.

Already online videos are emerging of a greater security presence on Iran’s streets. There is indeed a risk that protests will break out once more, says Kasra Aarabi, the director of IRGC research at United Against Nuclear Iran. The fear, for the regime, is that the general public might rise up at this pivotal moment – and if so, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

It goes without saying that if there is any indication that Israel is behind this, that would dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape.

But perhaps more importantly, simply the spectre of a chance – inflamed by the regime – would  be enough to sow yet more discord in the region.

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