(Bloomberg) -- Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, widely seen as a candidate to become the country’s next supreme leader, was killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday. 

His death, along with that of Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, was announced by state media early on Monday after rescuers spent hours trying to locate and reach the accident site in a mountainous part of north-western Iran.

Raisi was returning from an event on the border with Azerbaijan in a party of three helicopters when his craft went down with nine people on board, all of whom died. There was dense fog in the region, making conditions difficult for rescue teams. Iranian TV showed a crashed helicopter with only its tail intact. The other two helicopters landed safely.

The 63-year-old president was an ultraconservative cleric seen as being in lockstep with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is in his mid-80s and has the ultimate say over Iran’s foreign and military strategy. Raisi harbored a deep distrust toward the US and Israel and worked to bolster Iran’s ties with China and Russia.

In Iran, there is little open debate about who Khamenei’s eventual replacement may be. But analysts and academics close to the political establishment had for some time mentioned both Raisi and Khamenei’s son Mojtaba as top contenders.

Middle East Confronts a Moment of Transition: Balance of Power

The crash comes at a time of turmoil in the Middle East as war rates in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. The conflict has edged Iran, which backs the Islamist militant group, and Israel closer to all-out conflict. It’s led to other Tehran-supported groups, including the Houthis in Yemen and Shiite militias in Iraq, to attack ships around the Red Sea and US bases.

In April, Iran launched an unprecedented barrage of missiles and drones at Israel, its sworn enemy, after accusing the Jewish state of assassinating senior military commanders in Syria. Raisi had vowed to take revenge and pushed back against calls in the West for restraint. Still, the strikes were effectively announced in advance, allowing Israel and its allies to intercept most of them and ensure they caused little damage. The Jewish state reacted with a limited strike on an air base in Iran.

Who Will Be Iran’s Next President Following Raisi’s Death?

While tensions between the two countries have eased, they’re still high with the Israeli military in its eighth month of a war to destroy Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. Raisi was a vocal critic of the conflict and called on the Islamic world to rally behind Palestinians.

He came to power when he won a presidential election in 2021, replacing the more moderate Hassan Rouhani. The clerical establishment blocked many reformist candidates from running and turnout was the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history, reflecting Iranians’ discontent with an economy suffering under Western sanctions and inflation well into double digits.

He soon chose Amirabdollahian, considered close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, as his top diplomat. The moved underscored the anti-Western shift of the new leadership.

Raisi was accused by rights groups of helping orchestrate the execution of thousands of political dissidents in the late 1980s. In 2018, London-based Amnesty International said he presided over a “death commission” and called on the United Nations to investigate him for crimes against humanity.

His government faced violent protests across the country in 2022 after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code. Security forces killed hundreds of people in their crackdown, according to rights groups, with the protests underscoring the divide between young Iranians and a conservative leadership.

Presidential Election

Raisi’s set to be succeeded by Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, who has represented Iran on many recent overseas trips and who like many senior Iranian officials is under US sanctions. Elections will probably be held within 50 days, as per the constitution, and most Iran analysts doubt there will be any many change in policy until or even after the elections.

“There’ll be a lot of hope within the country of a moderate taking over,” Tina Fordham, founder of London-based geopolitical risk firm Fordham Global Foresight, said to Bloomberg Television. “But the elections will be tightly managed and the obsession with Iran’s leadership is going to be controlling that succession and not allowing any opening” for reformists.

In March last year, Raisi and Amirabdollahian, the foreign minister, restored Iran’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in a deal China helped broker. The pact improved relations between the regional rivals.

Iran also agreed a prisoner swap with the US in September, President Joe Biden hoping it would lower tensions and possibly lead to an eventual restoration of a 2015 nuclear deal that curbed Tehran’s atomic activities in return for the easing of sanctions.

Around the same time, Iran’s oil exports — by far its biggest source of foreign exchange — were soaring. Analysts took it as a sign the US was easing its enforcement of sanctions.

The war in Gaza, though, scuppered the prospect of the nuclear accord being revived and Raisi, along with Khamenei, was anyway sceptical of it. Then-President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018, a move that emboldened Iran’s hardliners, who said the country got little in the way of economic benefits.

Iran’s economy has continued to struggle, despite the extra revenue from higher shipments of petroleum. Inflation remains around 35%.

“New elections are likely to demonstrate the broad dissatisfaction of the public as well as the regime’s rock-bottom credibility,” said Gregory Brew, a geopolitical analyst at Eurasia Group. “There is likely to be public resistance and possibly even some violence in response to another stage-managed election, though it is unlikely to present a serious challenge to security forces or the regime’s hold on power.”

On Sunday evening and early Monday, Iranian television aired footage of scores of ambulances trying, in heavy rain and fog, to reach the downed helicopter. Turkey dispatched a drone in response to a request from Iran to help locate and monitor the crash site. The EU assisted by activating its rapid-response mapping service.

Raisi had met his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev to inaugurate a jointly-developed dam on the border between the two countries early on Sunday.

The funerals of the president and the others killed will take place on Tuesday morning, Iranian media reported.

They said Iranians took to the streets in large numbers to mourn Raisi’s death, waving posters with his picture and beating their chests.

There were reports of Iranians living outside the country setting off celebratory fireworks at news of the crash.

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--With assistance from Faseeh Mangi.

(Updates with details throughout.)

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