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Two deaths and an empire

May 23, 2024 at 6:00 pm

People attend a commemoration ceremony at Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq on May 20, 2024, for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian and other Iranian officials who were killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday in Iran. [Murtadha Al-Sudani – Anadolu Agency]

Many may not remember, but Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff and 16th President, General Zia-Ul-Haq, was also killed in a plane crash in August 1988. With the recent death of Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, in a strikingly similar incident, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on the circumstances surrounding both incidents and their broader implications for the world.

Neither of these two leaders was supposed to be where they were when they died. The day after Raisi’s death, the Armenian government neither confirmed nor denied reports that Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi had canceled a scheduled visit to Armenia at the last minute on Sunday, the day he died. Instead, Raisi travelled to the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, where he and Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, inaugurated a dam on the Aras River. Similarly, former Pakistani President, General Zia, was also not meant to attend an insignificant function in Multan, but was persuaded to go by a senior Army officer.

Both President Zia-Ul-Haq and President Ebrahim Raisi met their ends under mysterious circumstances involving their aircraft. In President Zia’s case, the Lockheed Martin-built C130 plane he was travelling in was considered highly reliable, designed to withstand engine failures, without crashing. However, it inexplicably crashed. Similarly, President Raisi’s demise occurred while he was aboard a Bell 212 helicopter, a craft known for its age and questionable suitability for transporting high-ranking officials, particularly in adverse weather conditions. Adding to the intrigue, there were concerns raised about the lack of a signal system on the helicopter, or if it was intentionally deactivated.

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But the most critical similarity is that both died when something of significance was ending in world politics and international relations. To begin with, both President Raisi and President Zia-Ul-Haq did not ascend to power through democratic means. President Raisi, despite being elected in the June 2021 presidential election, operated within a political system where candidates are vetted by unelected clerics and institutions, leading to criticisms of limited choice and transparency. President Zia-Ul-Haq, on the other hand, came to power through a military coup in 1977, establishing martial law and an authoritarian regime that lasted until his death in 1988. In both cases, the legitimacy of their leadership was questioned due to the absence of genuine democratic processes.

Most interesting, however, is the timing of their deaths. President Zia died just months after the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, marking a significant victory for the US-backed Afghan Mujahideen. The United States viewed the conflict in Afghanistan as a crucial part of the Cold War, with the CIA providing support to the Mujahideen through Pakistani intelligence services under the program called ‘Operation Cyclone’. This turning point, in time, saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a golden decade of unprecedented global influence for the US. Could the same be said about the timing of President Raisi’s death? Is something significant coming to an end? What new beginnings might we be witnessing? Is President Raisi’s death also signifying a tipping point?

In the past year, the global landscape has shifted considerably, marked by a decline in US economic strength and soft power. Russia and China have declared their plans to break away from the US-dominated system. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, despite unwavering US support for Israel’s war in Gaza. All these factors point towards a world gravitating towards multipolarity. President Raisi’s policies also symbolised this change. He advocated for a strategic reorientation towards Asia, especially China, citing a lack of favourable prospects for Iran in the West.

Less than a week before President Raisi’s death, the US and Iran had “secret talks”, where the US “outlined during the discussions the potential repercussions of operations for Iran and its proxies in the region, while also expressing concerns about the escalation of the Iranian nuclear program”. In the same week, three US citizens were found to be clandestinely involved in a failed coup attempt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the populist, Eurosceptic Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico, who won parliamentary elections last year on a pro-Russian and anti-American platform, was shot and critically wounded. Can it all be connected? Can it all be an effort to retain control as it slips away?

If President Zia’s death signalled the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is the death of President Raisi a harbinger for a similar fate for the United States? Will the next few years see a slow deterioration of US hegemony in the world or will it be, once again, the start of another era of total dominance? They say history never repeats, but it does rhyme. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has been considered one of the most significant reasons for the demise of the USSR. With conflicts breaking out in Europe and the Middle East and tensions with China involving Taiwan, Washington appears exposed on all fronts, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of its empire at a critical period in world politics. Clutching at straws will not help.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.