Iran Begins Burials For Late President, Foreign Minister, And Others Killed In Helicopter Crash

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Iran is preparing to inter its late president Ebrahim Raisi at the holiest site for Shiite Muslims in the Islamic Republic, a final mark of respect for a protégé of Iran’s supreme leader killed in a helicopter crash earlier this week.

President Ebrahim Raisi’s burial at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad concludes days of processions throughout much of Iran, aimed at reinforcing the country’s theocracy following the crash that killed him, the country’s foreign minister, and six others.

Hundreds of thousands crowded into Mashhad, about 750 kilometers (470 miles) east of Iran’s capital, Tehran. Many mourners, dressed in black, beat their chests and heads in a traditional sign of mourning common in Shiite ceremonies. A truck carried Raisi’s casket through the streets, with mourners reaching out to touch it and tossing scarves and other items against it for a blessing.

However, the days of services have not attracted the same crowds as those gathered for services for Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

This possibly reflects public sentiment about Raisi’s presidency, during which the government cracked down harshly on dissent amid protests over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, who was detained for allegedly not wearing her mandatory headscarf to authorities’ liking.

This crackdown and Iran’s struggling economy have not been mentioned in the extensive coverage provided by state television and newspapers. Also absent is any discussion of Raisi’s involvement in the mass execution of an estimated 5,000 dissidents at the end of the Iran-Iraq war or the cause of the crash of the aging Bell helicopter that carried him and others through a foggy, mountainous region.

Prosecutors have warned against public celebrations of Raisi’s death, and a heavy security presence has been seen in Tehran since the crash.

On Thursday morning, thousands dressed in black gathered along a main boulevard in Birjand, where Raisi once served as a member of the Assembly of Experts in Iran’s South Khorasan province along the Afghan border.

Hours later, Raisi’s casket arrived in Mashhad. He will be buried at the Imam Reza Shrine, where Shiite Islam’s 8th imam is interred. This region has long been associated with Shiite pilgrimage, and a hadith recounts that visiting the shrine can relieve sorrow or sin.

In 2016, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raisi to run the Imam Reza charity foundation, which manages a vast conglomerate of businesses and endowments in Iran, as well as overseeing the shrine. This foundation is one of many bonyads, or charitable foundations, funded by donations or assets seized after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

These foundations do not publicly account for their spending and answer only to Iran’s supreme leader. The Imam Reza charity, known as “Astan-e Quds-e Razavi” in Farsi, is believed to be one of the largest in the country, with analysts estimating its worth in the tens of billions of dollars as it owns almost half the land in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city.

Raisi will be the first top politician in the country to be buried at the shrine, representing a significant honor for the cleric.

The deaths of Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and six others in the crash come at a politically sensitive time for Iran, both domestically and internationally.

Raisi, who was 63, was considered a potential successor to Iran’s supreme leader, the 85-year-old Khamenei. None of Iran’s living past presidents, other than Khamenei, who served as president from 1981 until 1989, were seen in state television footage of Wednesday’s prayers. Authorities did not explain their apparent absence.

Iran has set June 28 for the next presidential election. For now, there is no clear favorite among Iran’s political elite — particularly no one who is a Shiite cleric, like Raisi.

Acting President Mohammad Mokhber, a relatively unknown first vice president until Sunday’s crash, has assumed Raisi’s role and even attended a meeting between Khamenei and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Wednesday.

State media circulated photos Thursday showing a meeting between Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard chief and the head of its expeditionary Quds Force with representatives from Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. This indicates the government’s continued commitment to these militias it supports against its rivals, Israel and the United States.

Meanwhile, former Foreign Ministers Mohammed Javad Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi, along with other dignitaries, paid respects to Amirabdollahian at Iran’s Foreign Ministry, where his casket was displayed. His body was later interred in Shahr-e Rey, just outside Tehran, at the Abdol Azim shrine, another significant burial site in Persian history.

“Give Soleimani our greetings,” a religious singer said as Amirabdollahian’s body was placed in its final resting place, referring to the slain general.