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Accident or sabotage?


WORLD Radio - Accident or sabotage?

With deepening ties to Russia, China, and North Korea, the deaths of Iran’s president and foreign minister cause concern for Iran and the United States

A woman mourns the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at Valiasr Square in Tehran on Monday. Getty Images/Photo by Atta Kenner/AFP

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 21st of May, 2024.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: And I’m Lindsay Mast. First up: a leadership shakeup in Iran.

SOUND: [Turkish CNN reporter on site as Red Crescent workers load remains into a convoy of vehicles in Varzaqan, Iran.]

A Turkish CNN reporter heard there as medical workers from the Red Crescent load the remains of eight people into response vehicles on Monday.

Iran’s president and foreign minister died in a helicopter crash over the weekend, on their return from a state visit to Azerbaijan.

REICHARD: Joining us now to talk about what this means is Will Inboden. He served as a member of the National Security Council staff under President George W. Bush. He now teaches at the University of Florida and writes for World Opinions.

Will, good morning!

WILL INBODEN, GUEST: Great to be with you, Mary.

REICHARD: Will, it’s a big story whenever the president of a country dies, but considering that we’re talking about Iran and an accident, there seems to be a lot more going on here.

Let’s start with who these men are. Can you give us some background on President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Abdollahian?

INBODEN: Sure! Yeah, the two very, this is a very significant development as you as you noted, and both of them were known very much as hardliners. I would say in moral terms, they're both very wicked men. Raisi, in particular, had presided over the last few decades in his different roles in Iran over the killing and executions of thousands of peaceful dissidents in Iran and critics of the regime. He had played a major hand in a number of Iran terrorist attacks over the last few decades, including attacks that killed hundreds of American troops. He certainly has played a significant role in Iran, ongoing support for Hezbollah, and Hamas, and Hamas's horrible attacks on Israel.

And then the foreign minister, Abdollahian, likewise, is a real hardliner, you know, support of Iran's nuclear program was only in the position because of his broader support for the overall regime. And so it is very significant that they're dead. But, you know, they're they're not to be missed.

REICHARD: Will, all the facts aren’t in yet but do you see any evidence of foul play here, or do you think fog really is to blame?

INBODEN: That's the big question, Mary, and I really don't know, I don't have any inside information. I think very few people know. It will be interesting to see what if anything comes out on on that question over the next few weeks. I think it's one of three possibilities. The first one, which has to be foremost, is it was a genuine accident. You know, flying helicopters through fog in mountains is a very dangerous, perilous enterprise, and so very well could have been a genuine accident.

If there was other endeavors involved, I think it's one of two things. It was either perhaps Israeli sabotage---again, you know, Israel, of course, has any number of incentives to do more harm to Iran, because Iran has sworn Israel's destruction. That, you know, our listeners will recall a few weeks ago, Iran launched that horrible and unprecedented missile attack on Israel, and Israel then did a smaller targeted retaliation against one site known for Iran's nuclear program. But Israel would potentially have incentive to do a stronger action here. I have no evidence that Israel actually did, so I want to be very clear to our listeners, but it can't be ruled out, especially because Israel has very close ties to Azerbaijan, and that's where the helicopter had taken off from and so they really intelligent certainly would have had potential access there.

And the third possibility is that it might have been sabotaged by other elements within Iran. And this is where the story is very interesting. Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the supreme leader of Iran is 85 years old and in poor health, and there's a lot of maneuvering and jockeying to succeed him. And the two main candidates to succeed the Ayatollah were President Raisi, and then the Ayatollah's son, Mojtaba, and that even though the Iranian regime is very wicked and malevolent, it's also riven with feuds and factions, and it's certainly possible that a faction supporting Mojtaba Khamenei saw this as an opportunity to eliminate his main rival to ascend to the supreme leader position. So that's a possibility as well. We just don't know.

REICHARD: What do you make of Iran’s response to this situation?

INBODEN: Again, it's really hard to discern much. You know, the regime tightly controls all information. And, you know, there's no independent media, there's no investigative journalists there. The regime wants to project continuity and strength to the outside world. That's why Ayatollah Khamenei very quickly named Mohammad Mokhber as the successor or at least the interim president. I don't think we'll see much of a change in Iran foreign policy, its support for terrorism, or anything like that. You know, they want to project strength and continuity. However, I imagine inside the regime, there's real panic right now that this has happened. And there's a real risk for the regime of more instability. Raisi was widely hated by many of the Iranian people, and many of them will be glad to see him gone. And so we might well see another round of domestic protests against the regime or for further domestic unrest. And so that's why Tehran is trying to very carefully control the information that comes out and project that picture of continuity and stability, when in fact, that may not be the case internally.

REICHARD: In past weeks, we’ve talked about Iran’s relationship with countries like Russia and China, and aggression towards the U.S. and China, and also Iran’s nuclear program. Is there a particular long-term consequence of this crash that you’re going to be watching for?

INBODEN: The main factor is going to be who but comes who succeeds Ayatollah Khamenei, like who is the next leader of Iran? Whether it's one of these individuals or whether they go with a some sort of Leadership Council plural leadership, perhaps. Because you're right, the the bigger geopolitical story here has been the deepening ties between Iran and Russia, between Iran and China, even between Iran and North Korea. Those four countries now comprise this new kind of Eurasian belt of tyranny, I've called them in other contexts before – all very hostile to the United States. And so Moscow and Beijing in particular are going to be very concerned that whatever happens in Iran, Iran continues to be a reliable supporter of theirs. You know, Iran's providing a lot of drones to Russia, for example, for its aggression against Ukraine. Russia has been, you know, providing missile technology to North Korea and benefiting from that as well. And of course, they provide a lot of oil to China. And so those other countries, all  very hostile to United States, are also, I'm sure, very concerned about what happens next with Iran.

REICHARD: Will Inboden is a former member of the National Security Council staff. He now teaches at the University of Florida and writes for WORLD Opinions.

Will, thanks for your analysis!

INBODEN: Thanks, Mary. Great to be with you as always.

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