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Helicopter crash kills Iran's president. Acting president to fill in until elections


The president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, died in a helicopter crash in Northern Iran yesterday. He had been flying with Iran's foreign minister and other officials who were also killed. The cause of the accident is not known, but Iranian state media says the helicopter crashed in foggy weather conditions.

Clerics hold ultimate power in Iran, but Raisi was the top elected official. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed an acting president until elections are held. In a few minutes, we're going to hear reaction from inside Israel, which considers Iran an existential threat. But first, we want to know more about what these developments might mean for Iran. And for that, we've called Robin Wright. She has interviewed Iran's last six presidents, including Raisi. She's a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a writer for the New Yorker. Good morning, Robin.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Good morning.

MARTIN: First, if you could just help us understand how important the - is the office of the president to a country that ultimately answers to the supreme leader?

WRIGHT: Well, the president has the ability to run the government on a day-to-day basis. He does have many powers. There is a check-and-balance system within Iran where the clerics have institutions that can veto legislation or manipulate who is allowed to run. It's a - it's - the system is based on Napoleonic law, French and Belgian law, but it has the veneer of Islamic law and Islamic institutions imposed on it. So it's a unique system of government.

Raisi has been important because he was very close to the Supreme leader and was even considered a potential successor to the Supreme leader. What makes his death particularly important is not about government today, but about the transition process with an aged and ailing supreme leader who will inevitably die in the next few years. Raisi was expected to be elected next year and carry government leadership through 2029, and that would include the transition of - after the supreme leader. He was even considered a successor to the supreme leader.

So while the day-to-day events may not be shaken up a great deal, there will be an incredible shake-up and scramble to find someone to lead that transition as president and someone who might potentially also be a successor to the supreme leader.

MARTIN: Interesting. So we obviously want to sort of look ahead, but tell us about Raisi. I mean, how did he see the world compared to other leadership in Iran? And the last time you saw him, what were your impressions of him?

WRIGHT: I interviewed him the last time when he made his debut in front of the United Nations in 2022, and he was belligerent and angry. He waved a picture of General Qasem Soleimani, the revolutionary guard commander whom the United States assassinated in a drone attack in 2020. And he called for President Trump, who ordered that assassination, to be tried in court. He was full of, you know, fury. And he was really the most hard-line president since the 1979 revolution.

He was important in terms of policy because he was the one who made the trips to China, which became the financial lifeline for Iran in selling oil and defying U.S. sanctions. He helped cement relations with Russia and made Iran the most important arms supplier for Russia in its war with Ukraine. So he did take actions, of course, all approved by the religious branches, the supreme leader especially, in taking these decisions. But his language for the - toward the United States was always the hardest of any Iranian president.

MARTIN: How - do you have a sense of how he was regarded inside Iran?

WRIGHT: Very good question. He was president, but he was elected with the lowest turnout in modern Iranian history, and he was very unpopular. I suspect that less than 20% of the population and possibly closer to 10% supported both Raisi and the system. Raisi was noted for the mass executions in 1988 of dissidents. And he was widely feared for the inability to, you know, allow any kind of opening that would have allowed the Islamic Republic to have more support.

MARTIN: Well, very briefly - you only have about 15 seconds left - what do you think happens now?

WRIGHT: There will be a process that's in place. It will - they will find a new president. But the scramble behind the scenes will be very, very interesting.

MARTIN: That is Robin Wright. She's a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Robin, thanks so much for sharing these insights with us.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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