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Iranian homeland security – Update as of 28/05/2024

The files we follow:  Iranian foreign policy, Iranian homeland security

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On Sunday 19 May, the Islamic Republic of Iran suffered a major shock. A convoy of three helicopters carrying, among others, President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian and the Governor of Iran’s Eastern Azerbaijan province crashed in the vicinity of the town of Jolfa, close to the border with the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Iranian President was in the region the day before the incident, to inaugurate a dam in the presence of his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev.

Initially unable to provide any further information about the conditions in which one of the aircraft crashed, the Iranian authorities deployed rescue teams to the area to identify the crash site and save any survivors. In the end, the remains of the aircraft were found in mountainous terrain, in adverse weather conditions. All seven people on board died, including President Ebrahim Raisi.

The report published by the General Staff of the National Armed Forces on the following Thursday indicates several points that are crucial to understanding what was declared to be an accident, and not a planned attack: firstly, the report indicates that the helicopter did not alter the trajectory initially planned for the journey. In addition, no anomalies were observed prior to the accident, either on the remains of the aircraft, which showed no bullet holes, or projectiles that might have indicated an attack on the Iranian delegation. Finally, about a minute and a half before the crash, radio communication took place between the pilot of the helicopter that was hit and the other two aircraft in the convoy.

More than a week after the events, several major questions are still being asked. The head of the presidential cabinet, Gholamhossein Esmaeili, gave his version of events in an interview on a channel close to the government. After the accident, he revealed that he had had a telephone conversation lasting more than three hours with the cleric Mohammed Ali Ale-Hashem, Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative in the province of East Azerbaijan. However, the cleric was later found dead, like the rest of the people in the helicopter.

Another element that remains unexplained and raises questions concerns the close protection of President Ebrahim Raissi. The list of people identified in the crash suggests that the President’s usual bodyguard, Javad Mehrabi, changed his habits and moved to one of the other two helicopters in the convoy, leaving the President unprotected. The reason for this decision remains unknown.

Politically, the death of the Iranian President is a real earthquake. Ranked as a potential successor to Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader, Ebrahim Raisi was, among other things, the second most powerful man in the country. He was known as the ‘Butcher of Tehran’, notably for his participation in several episodes of repression and mass executions of opponents of the regime. His death represents a major challenge for Ayatollah Khamenei, who must find a successor as quickly as possible and a President who is sufficiently close to his politico-religious vision, in a regional context that remains chaotic and an internal political crisis that continues to drag on. This climate of uncertainty was reflected in the reinforcement of the Ayatollah’s close security during Ebrahim Raissi’s funeral. Local media reported a drastic increase in the number of security personnel around the Supreme Leader, who constantly kept himself physically separated from the crowd. In addition to the loss of an essential political representative, the regime is indeed facing an existential threat, aimed directly at the figure of the Supreme Guide.

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