In divided Iran, president's death met by muted mourning and furtive celebration

  • World
  • Tuesday, 21 May 2024

People gather to mourn for the death of the late Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, in Tehran, Iran May 20, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran proclaimed five days of mourning for President Ebrahim Raisi on Monday, though the muted atmosphere revealed little of the spectacular public grief that has accompanied the deaths of other senior figures in the Islamic Republic's 45-year history.

While government loyalists packed into mosques and squares to pray for Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, both killed in a helicopter crash, most shops remained open and the authorities made little effort to interrupt ordinary life.

A year after Raisi's hardline government cracked down violently to end the biggest anti-establishment demonstrations since the 1979 revolution, opponents even posted furtive video online of people passing out sweets to celebrate his death.

Laila, a 21-year-old student in Tehran, told Reuters by phone that she was not saddened by Raisi's death, "because he ordered the crackdown on women for hijab."

"But I am sad because even with Raisi's death this regime will not change," she said.

Rights groups say hundreds of Iranians died in 2022-2023 demonstrations triggered by the death in custody of a young Iranian Kurdish woman arrested by morality police for violating the country's strict dress codes.

The authorities' handling of an array of political, social and economic crises have deepened the gap between the clerical rulers and society.

Supporters of the clerical establishment spoke admiringly of Raisi, a 63-year-old former hardline jurist elected in a tightly controlled vote in 2021.

"He was a hard working president. His legacy will endure as long as we are alive," said Mohammad Hossein Zarrabi, 28, a member of the volunteer Basij militia in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom.

But there was little of the emotional rhetoric that accompanied the deaths of publicly revered figures, like Qasem Soleimani, a senior commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards killed by a U.S. missile in 2020 in Iraq, whose funeral drew huge crowds of mourners, weeping with sorrow and rage.

For opponents of Iran's clerical rulers at home and in exile, Raisi has been a hate figure since the 1980s when he was blamed for playing a leading role as a jurist in the execution of dissidents. Iran has never acknowledged that mass executions took place; amnesty International says 5,000 Iranians, possibly more, were executed in the first decade after the revolution.

"I congratulate the families of the victims of the executions," internet user Soran Mansournia posted in an online forum debating the legacy of Raisi's death.

However, Narges, another user, lamented Raisi as having died "a martyr's death".

Many Iranians said they expected that Raisi's death would have little impact on how the country would be ruled, with the establishment likely to replace him with another figure with similarly hardline views.

"Who cares. One hardliner dies, another takes over and our misery continues," said Reza, 47, a shopkeeper in the central desert city of Yazd who did not give his full name fearing reprisals.

"We're too busy with economic and social issues to worry about such news."

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff)

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