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The long-anticipated leadership change in Iran was the position of Supreme Leader as its incumbent, the 85-year-old Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, has been in deteriorating health in recent years.  But a helicopter crash on a foggy, forested mountain in northwestern Iran claimed the life of President Ebrahim Ra’isi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the Governor General of East Azerbaijan Province, Malek Rahmati, and the Tabriz Friday Prayer Leader, Mohammad Ali Al-e Hashem.  Ra’isi had been one of the leading candidates to replace Khamenei as Supreme Leader, so with this tragedy the calculus for Iran’s next cycle of leadership has been scrambled at multiple levels.

Leaders from around the world, including the US, quickly offered their condolences to the Iranian people on their loss.  Iran requested assistance from the US in locating the crash site, assistance the US was willing to provide, though in the end it proved logistically complicated. 

Per the Iranian constitution, elections for a new President need to be held within 50 days, and they have been scheduled for 28 June.  If the Guardian Council restricts the candidate pool to hard-liners, it is likely that voter turnout will continue its recent downward spiral and the legitimacy of the regime will be further eroded.  Should genuine moderates be allowed to run, their prospects would be positive and the potential for Iranian leadership to move in the direction of more freedom internally and less isolation internationally would be enhanced.

Hopefully leaders in the US and Europe will be able to sense and nurture opportunities for new openings in relations with Iran.  Recent indirect talks hosted by Oman show that both Tehran and Washington recognize that there are differences that can be addressed, and tensions reduced through diplomacy.  Similarly, Iran’s recent hosting of a senior IAEA delegation visit indicates an openness to reducing tensions over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of Ra’isi’s death in the helicopter crash are ripe for conspiracy theories.  Iran-Israel tensions are at an all-time high after the lethal Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, Iran’s 300 plus missile and drone response, and Israel’s subsequent strike on Iranian facilities near Isfahan.   Suspicious minds can imagine American motivations for taking out pieces of Iran’s leadership.  Internal divisions in Iran and the great unpopularity of the Islamic regime suggest motives for opposition forces in Iran to be responsible for the deed.  But conspiracy theories are hardly necessary to account for a mechanical problem on a 50-year-old helicopter which had been deprived of adequate spare parts and maintenance for decades.  Even well-maintained helicopters are dangerous to fly in foggy mountainous terrain.

All of that being said, PCIA’s Joan Gaughan thinks there may be the ingredients for a novel here: Instead of beginning with “It was a dark and stormy night”…it would be “The wraithlike fog was punctuated with a low moan. Ghosts of the victims of revolutionary injustice perhaps? The torments of ancient sorrows long unexpiated?  The howls of widows and mothers muffled by the darkening gloom? A doomed helicopter meting out long-overdue justice to its occupants?”

Open the attachment below to read the PCIA Advocacy Bulletin for October 202