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Iran begins days of funeral rites for Ebrahim Raisi after crash

People attend funeral ceremony, held for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his senior officials died in a helicopter crash, in Tabriz, Iran on May 21, 2024. 

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Thousands of mourners descended on Tabriz on Tuesday for a funeral ceremony honoring Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who perished in a helicopter crash over the weekend, leaving an indelible void in the country’s leadership succession plans.

Videos and photographs shared on social media and by Iran’s state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency and the semiofficial Tasnim showed crowds swarming under a slate sky to observe the first funerary ceremony held for Raisi, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and others killed in the incident.

CNBC did not independently verify the footage. Some mourners are shown brandishing photographs of Raisi, while others trooped behind lines awaiting the procession.  

Services for Raisi will be held between Tuesday and Thursday in Tabriz, Qom, Birjand and Iranian capital Tehran. His final burial will take place in his birthplace, the holy city of Mashhad in the northeast of the country, according to IRNA, after Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced five days of mourning.

 “Our honorable Raisi worked tirelessly,” Khamenei said on the X social media platform on Monday.

A public holiday was declared on Wednesday, when Iran will undertake a ceremony inviting “high-ranking foreign dignitaries,” according to IRNA — although it is yet unclear which world leaders will participate.

While some Iranians grieved Raisi, his death was a boon for critics of the “Butcher of Tehran” who decried his record serving on a panel that directed the executions of up to 5,000 of people in 1988, according to the Human Rights Watch, and his harsh crackdown on mass protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022.

Raisi’s sudden death sent seismic ripples on the international stage, where Iran has been increasingly isolated amid U.S. and Western sanctions and criticism over its nuclear activities and human rights record.

The helicopter carrying Raisi and Amirabdolahian suffered a hard landing on Sunday while returning from near the Azerbaijan border in poor weather, stripping Iran of two key leaders at a time when the country contends with economic pressures born of Western sanctions and tensions from broader conflict in the Middle East.

Tehran has historically backed Palestinian militant group Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Syrian administration of Bashar Assad, directly engaging Israel in a first, short-lived set of aerial strikes launched from its own territory last month.

A funeral ceremony for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his senior officials is held in Tabriz, Iran on May 21, 2024.

Anadolu | Anadolu | Getty Images

Focus has now shifted on the next steps of succession in Iran, amid the brisk announcements of interim caretakers. Iran’s former Vice President Mohammad Mokhber now serves as acting head of state, while Deputy Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani assumes Amirabdollahian’s position. Presidential elections are slated to take place on June 28. Yet larger questions loom: 63-year-old Raisi, a hardline cleric, was seen as the likely heir of his 85-year-old mentor Khamenei, who has controlled power in Iran since 1989.

Iran’s future on the international stage is also at a watershed moment. In March last year, Tehran and long-standing foe Saudi Arabia agreed to revive diplomatic relations following ties brokered by China, a major commercial partner of both countries. It accepted the August 2023 invitation to join the Beijing-led BRICS economic coalition of emerging markets and deepened ties with China and Russia, which uses Iranian-made Shahed drones in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday marked Raisi’s death as “a great loss to the Iranian people, and the Chinese people also lost a good friend,” according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin also extolled Raisi as an “outstanding politician whose entire life was devoted to serving his Motherland” and a “true friend of Russia,” who “made an invaluable personal contribution to the development of good neighborly relations between our countries and made great efforts to advance them to the level of strategic partnership.”

The U.S. likewise expressed condolences over Raisi’s death, with U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller noting on Monday, “As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

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