Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 21 May 2024


What killed President Ebrahim Raisi? Iranians have theories.

Iranians gather at Valiasr Square in central Tehran on Monday. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Even though it appeared that the crash was a weather-related accident, few details were released to the public, naturally fueling wide speculation among observers. Iranian authorities’ track record of tampering with the crash sites of aviation disasters does little to instill confidence that they will be transparent in reporting their findings, which inevitably leads to more questions.

Let’s address the most basic one first: How can a vehicle transporting top officials of a large country — one credited with all manner of sinister powers — simply disappear within its borders and for so long? The likeliest answer is that Iranian authorities knew immediately what had happened but dragged their feet while they considered how to inform the nation and the world.

During those long hours when officials had little to say, conspiracy theories undermining the regime proliferated. All three point to weaknesses the regime would prefer to hide. In walking through them here, I’ll save the most probable explanation for last.

Inevitably, some pointed to Israel as a possible culprit. That country denied any involvement, but it has done that in previous instances when it killed key Iranian officials. Regardless of whether Israel played a role, ordinary Iranians will not dismiss the possibility that this was a message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: that Israeli forces truly seem capable of doing whatever they like inside Iran. Even if this is not true, it does an authoritarian regime no good for its people to think it might be.

Another pesky theory that will be hard for the regime to shake was the notion that this was an inside job.

Although Iran is a tightly controlled system that usually bends to Khamenei’s whims, that doesn’t mean political competition doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s rampant. Raisi was thought to have been handpicked by the supreme leader to be president. Though astute analysts doubted Raisi had the chops to rise to the top, it was widely assumed that he was in the running to succeed Khamenei.

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Now, Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, is the likeliest person to assume the full power of the state when his father dies. There was a time when loyalty meant something in Iran’s theocratic system, but there has also been a long history of violent and unresolved deaths within the state in the 45-year history of the Islamic republic. In the eyes of some Iranians, this will make Mojtaba and his cronies immediate suspects — and for regime insiders, it’s yet another sign that deadly infighting is likely to increase after Khamenei dies.

But the most probable cause of this fatal helicopter crash is the least fanciful and most damning: It was an accident that most likely happened because much in the Islamic republic is in an advanced state of decay.

Iran is one of the most dangerous places in the world in which to drive or fly. The number of road deaths is staggering, averaging about 17,000 each year. The number of fatal plane crashes is also abnormally high. Flight fatalities can be attributed to the use of antiquated aircraft whose maintenance is hampered by the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. And yet Iranians of all stripes, including senior regime officials, make risky transportation decisions all the time. Politicians die or are injured in accidents more frequently than you might think.

Still, Iranians have to be wondering: If conditions were so treacherous, why were the country’s president and top members of his cabinet allowed to fly? Didn’t the Islamic republic have any more advanced methods or equipment for tracking their whereabouts? And if not, what else is the regime neglecting to tend to?

In a country where responsibility for failures large and small is almost always attributed to the will of God, one wonders what act of divine intervention will be required to explain this mess.

Despite the calamity, many Iranians won’t miss Raisi, who was an architect of the horrific extermination of thousands of domestic dissidents in the 1980s. At the same time, they know his death won’t change things in any substantive way. The Iranian regime may be wobbly and sclerotic, but it’s also deeply entrenched. It will take more than the death of its president — whose power is marginal, at best — to unseat it.


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