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Rescuers are searching for a helicopter that was carrying Iran's president

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

In Iran, state media report that a rescue operation is underway after a helicopter carrying the country's president and foreign minister crashed near Iran's border with Azerbaijan. Officials say foggy weather conditions may have contributed to that crash and slowed the efforts of rescue crews to reach the scene. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following developments from Istanbul. Now, Peter, what do we know so far about what happened?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian - they were in Azerbaijan for a ceremony to inaugurate a dam near the border between the two countries. And it was when they were flying back, three helicopters carrying the entourage back, and two of them made it safely to their destinations. The third, the one carrying the president and foreign minister and some other folks, had the crash. So far, there's been no official word on Raisi's condition. State media are reporting bad weather had a lot to do with the rescue efforts becoming more difficult. Officials say rainy conditions and muddy ground just slowed everything down.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. We'll be keeping our eye out for more developments there, but for now, tell us a bit more about President Raisi. What should we know about him?

KENYON: Well, I guess the first thing is in Iran, the president really isn't the top person in terms of power. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is No. 1 at all times. Now, Ebrahim Raisi has been a protege of the Supreme leader. That certainly wasn't the case with his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. He was more of a centrist. He led the effort to get the Iran nuclear deal done. That's the agreement President Donald Trump torpedoed in 2018. And since then, Iran's nuclear program has been ramping up constantly.

Now, Raisi - he's disliked by civil rights advocates, not least for his role in the so-called death committees in the 1980s that ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners. But at this point, Iran's hard-liners are firmly in charge. Raisi is the president. Hard-line conservatives in charge of the legislature and judiciary, as well.

KURTZLEBEN: I have another big question for you, Peter. If Iran's president is dead or unable to continue in office - and I want to stress the if here - this is hypothetical - what happens then?

KENYON: Well, exactly. A lot of people are thinking about this. The constitution in Iran doesn't really spell it out, but there have been some amendments mainly giving Supreme Leader Khamenei more and more power to influence this process. There could be a presidential election. It's not the only possibility. There are provisions for top officials to form a council, work out a succession plan. But it all has to have the blessing of the Supreme leader, and analysts are saying that basically means it's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who will make the call.

And there is one other aspect to all this. President Raisi has been viewed as a possible successor to Khamenei, the man in line to be the next supreme leader. So if Raisi is out of the picture, others will be jockeying for position. Some say Khamenei's son, Mostafa, is a possibility. Others will also, no doubt, try to advance their own cases. One thing seems unlikely to change anytime soon, though. Iran's hard-line conservatives are likely to hold onto the reins of power, at least in the near term and possibly for some time to come.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.