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Iran Mourners Begin Days of Funerals   05/21 06:25


   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Mourners in black began gathering 
Tuesday for days of funerals and processions for Iran's late president, foreign 
minister and others killed in a helicopter crash, a government-led series of 
ceremonies aimed at both honoring the dead and projecting strength in an 
unsettled Middle East.

   For Iran's Shiite theocracy, mass demonstrations have been crucial since 
millions thronged the streets of Tehran to welcome Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah 
Khomeini in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution, and also attended his funeral 
10 years later. An estimated 1 million turned out in 2020 for processions for 
the late Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was slain in a U.S. 
drone strike in Baghdad.

   Whether President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian 
and others draw the same crowd remains in question, particularly as Raisi died 
in a helicopter crash, won his office in the lowest-turnout presidential 
election in the country's history and presided over sweeping crackdowns on all 
dissent. Prosecutors already have warned people over showing any public signs 
of celebrating his death and a heavy security force presence has been seen on 
the streets of Tehran since the crash.

   But Raisi, 63, had been discussed as a possible successor for Iran's supreme 
leader, the 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His death now throws that 
selection into question, particularly as there is no heir-apparent cleric for 
the presidency ahead of planned June 28 elections.

   "Raisi's death comes at a moment when the Islamist regime is consolidated," 
wrote Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute. "In short, 
there will be no power vacuum in Tehran; nonetheless, post-Khamenei Iran 
suddenly looks far less predictable than it did just a few days ago."

   A procession Tuesday morning led by a semitruck carrying the caskets of the 
dead slowly moved through the narrow streets of downtown Tabriz, the closest 
major city near the site of the crash Sunday. Thousands in black slowly walked 
beside the coffins, some throwing flowers up to them as an emcee wept through a 
loudspeaker for men he described as martyrs.

   The bodies will travel on to the holy Shiite seminary city of Qom before 
traveling to Tehran later Tuesday. On Wednesday, a funeral presided over by 
Khamenei will then turn into a procession as well.

   It remains unclear what international presence that funeral will draw, as 
Raisi faced U.S. sanctions for his part in mass executions in 1988 and for 
abuses targeting protesters and dissidents while leading the country's 
judiciary. Iran under Raisi also shipped bomb-carrying drones to Russia to be 
used in its war on Ukraine.

   "I don't feel comfortable sending condolences while Iran is sending drones 
that are used against civilians in Ukraine," wrote Lithuanian Foreign Minister 
Gabrielius Landsbergis on the social platform X.

   United Kingdom Security Minister Tom Tugendhat echoed that in his own 
message on X: "President Raisi's regime has murdered thousands at home, and 
targeted people here in Britain and across Europe. I will not mourn him."

   On Thursday, Raisi's hometown of Birjand will see a procession, followed by 
a funeral and burial at the Imam Reza shrine in the holy city of Mashhad, the 
only imam of the Shiite's faith buried in Iran.

   That shrine has long been a center for pilgrims and sees millions visit each 
year. Over the centuries, its grounds have served as the final burial site for 
heroes in Persian history. It's an incredibly high, rare honor in the faith. 
Iranian President Mohammad-Ali Rajai, the only other president to die in office 
when he was killed in a 1981 bombing, was buried in Tehran.

   Iran's theocracy declared five days of mourning, encouraging people to 
attend the public mourning sessions. Typically, government employees and 
schoolchildren attend such events en masse, while others take part out of 
patriotism, curiosity or to witness historic events.

   Across Iran, its rural population often more closely embraces the Shiite 
faith and the government. However, Tehran has long held a far different view of 
Raisi and his government's policies as mass protests have roiled the capital 
for years.

   The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman detained 
over her allegedly loose headscarf, or hijab. The monthslong security crackdown 
that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and saw over 
22,000 detained. In March, a United Nations investigative panel found that Iran 
was responsible for the "physical violence" that led to Amini's death. 
Meanwhile, Iran's rial currency has cratered after the collapse of Iran's 
nuclear deal with world powers, destroying people's savings and pensions.

   On Sunday night, as news of the helicopter crash circulated, some offered 
anti-government chants in the night. Fireworks could be seen in some parts of 
the capital, though Sunday also marked a remembrance for Imam Reza, which can 
see them set off as well. Critical messages and dark jokes over the crash also 
circulated online.

   Iran's top prosecutor has already issued an order demanding cases be filed 
against those "publishing false content, lies and insults" against Raisi and 
others killed in the crash, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

   No cause has yet been offered by Iran's government for the crash, which took 
place in a foggy mountain range in a decadesold helicopter. Iranian presidents 
including hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Abolhasan Banisadr both survived 
their own helicopter crashes while in office.

   Iran's military, not its civil aviation authority, will investigate and 
later offer a report, authorities say. Iran's civil air crash investigators 
faced widespread international criticism over their reports on the downing of a 
Ukrainian passenger plane by an air defense battery in 2020 after Soleimani's 

   Meanwhile Tuesday, Iran's new Assembly of Experts opened its first session 
after an election that decided the new assembly, a panel of which both Raisi 
and the late Tabriz Friday leader Mohammad Ali Ale-Heshem were members. A 
flower-ringed portrait sat on the seat Raisi would have occupied at the meeting 
of the 88-member panel, which is tasked with selecting the country's next 
supreme leader. Also attending was Iran's acting President Mohammad Mokhber.

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