A helicopter crash that killed Iran’s president and others could reverberate across the Middle East

Iranian students studying in Russia react Monday as they stand next to a portrait of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at a makeshift memorial at the Iranian embassy in Moscow, Russia. Raisi, a hardline protege of the country’s supreme leader who helped oversee the mass executions of thousands in 1988 and later led the country when it enriched uranium to weapons-grade levels, launched a major attack on Israel and experienced mass protests, died. Sunday May 19. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

JERUSALEM (AP) — The helicopter crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and other officials is likely to reverberate across the Middle East, where Iran’s influence runs far and deep.

That’s because Iran has supported armed groups and militants in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories for decades, allowing the country to project power and potentially attack the United States or Israel, the sworn enemies of the 1979 Islamic Revolution , could deter.

Tensions have never been as high as last month, when Iran under Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched hundreds of drones and ballistic missiles at Israel in response to an airstrike on an Iranian consulate in Syria, killing two Iranian generals and five officers .

Israel, with the help of the United States, Britain, Jordan and others, intercepted almost all the projectiles. In response, Israel apparently launched its own attack on an air defense radar system in the Iranian city of Isfahan, causing no casualties but sending an unmistakable message.

The sides have been waging a shadow war of covert operations and cyber attacks for years, but the April firefight was their first direct military confrontation.

The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has attracted other Iranian allies, with each attack and counterattack threatening to ignite a broader war.

It is a flammable mixture that can be ignited by unexpected events, such as Sunday’s deadly crash.

Israel has long viewed Iran as its biggest threat because of Tehran’s controversial nuclear program, its ballistic missiles and its support for armed groups that have vowed Israel’s destruction.

Iran sees itself as the main patron of Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule, and top officials have been calling for Israel to be wiped off the map for years.

Raisi, a hardliner seen as a protégé and possible successor to Khamenei, rebuked Israel last month, saying: “The Zionist Israeli regime has been perpetrating oppression against the Palestinian people for 75 years.”

“First, we must expel the usurpers, second, we must make them pay the costs for all the damage they have caused, and third, we must bring the oppressor and usurper to justice,” he said.

Israel is believed to have carried out numerous attacks on senior Iranian military officials and nuclear scientists over the years.

FILE – Iranian worshipers chant slogans during an anti-Israel rally after Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 19, 2024. The apparent crash of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and others top officials will likely reverberate throughout the Middle East. Tensions have soared since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, with Israel and Iran firing directly at each other for the first time ever in April. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

There is no evidence that Israel was involved in Sunday’s helicopter crash, and Israeli officials have not commented on the incident.

Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have also long viewed Iran with suspicion, a key factor in the decision by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel in 2020, and by Saudi Arabia to consider such a move.

Iran has over the years provided financial and other support to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which led the October 7 attack on Israel that sparked the war in Gaza, and to the smaller but more radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which took part in it. But there is no evidence that Iran was directly involved in the attack.

Since the start of the war, Iranian leaders have expressed solidarity with the Palestinians. Their allies in the region have gone much further.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Iran’s most militarily advanced proxy, has been waging a low-intensity conflict with Israel since the start of the Gaza war. The two sides have exchanged attacks along the Israel-Lebanon border almost daily, forcing tens of thousands of people on both sides to flee.

So far, however, the conflict has not turned into an outright war that would be disastrous for both countries.

Shia Muslims hold photos of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other leaders shout slogans during a candlelight vigil in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on Monday, May 20, 2024. Raisi and several other officials were found dead on Monday, hours after their helicopter had crashed in a foggy, mountainous area in northwestern Iran, state media reported. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq launched repeated attacks on U.S. bases in the early months of the war but retreated after U.S. retaliatory strikes for a drone strike that killed three U.S. soldiers in January.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels, another ally of Iran, have repeatedly attacked international shipping in what they portray as a blockade of Israel. These attacks, which often target ships with no apparent ties to Israel, have also led to US-led retaliation.

Iran’s influence extends beyond the Middle East and its rivalry with Israel.

Israel and Western countries have long suspected Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful nuclear program, in what they see as a threat to non-proliferation around the world.

Then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from a landmark nuclear pact between Iran and world powers in 2018, and his imposition of crushing sanctions, led Iran to gradually abandon all restrictions placed on its program by the deal.

Today, Iran enriches uranium to a purity of 60% – almost 90% for weapons. Surveillance cameras installed by the UN nuclear agency have been disrupted and Iran has banned some of the agency’s most experienced inspectors. Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes, but the United States and others believe the country had an active nuclear weapons program until 2003.

Israel is widely believed to be the only nuclear weapons power in the Middle East, but has never acknowledged that it possesses such weapons.

Iran has also emerged as a key ally of Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, and is widely accused of supplying exploding drones that have wreaked havoc in Ukraine’s cities. Raisi himself denied the accusations in an interview with The Associated Press last fall, saying Iran had not supplied such weapons since the outbreak of hostilities in February 2022.

Iranian officials have made conflicting comments about the drones, while U.S. and European officials say the mere number used in the war in Ukraine shows that the flow of such weapons has increased since the war began.

FILE – People gather around part of an intercepted ballistic missile that fell near the Dead Sea in Israel on Saturday, April 20, 2024. The apparent crash of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and other top officials is likely to resonate across the Middle East. Tensions have soared since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, with Israel and Iran firing directly at each other for the first time ever in April. (AP Photo/Itamar Grinberg, file)