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From London to Los Angeles, Many Iranians Overseas Cheer, and Fear, after President’s Death

LONDON  — Among Iranian communities from London to Los Angeles, few tears are being shed over the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, killed in a weekend helicopter crash.

But there are not always loud cheers, either.

While some hope the demise of a powerful figure in Iran’s authoritarian Islamic government may bring change, others fear it could result in more repression.

“It’s a better world without him,” said Maryam Namazie, a U.K.-based women’s rights campaigner. “He is one of the pillars of the Islamic regime of Iran. He has been there since its inception.”

But, she added: “Raisi, however much of a pillar he was, is expendable. There are many others to take his place.”

Inside Iran, authorities are keeping a tight lid on reaction to the crash that killed Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and six others. The government declared five days of mourning, encouraging people into the streets in displays of public grief and support. Prosecutors have warned Iranians against any public celebrations, and a heavy security force presence has been on the streets of Tehran.

Outside Iran, some expatriates felt bold enough to dance in the street. Nazenin Ansari, editor of Kayhan London, a news website for Iranians abroad that is critical of the country’s theocracy, said that within hours of news of Raisi’s death, Iranians gathered in cities across Europe and beyond to celebrate.

The Iranian diaspora is large, including those who fled soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and later waves who left because of continued repression or economic woes. More than half a million Iranians live in the U.S. — many in California — and there are large communities in European cities, including London, Paris and Stockholm.

Dissidents have shared social media videos showing dozens of Iranians dancing and cheering in the streets of Toronto and Cologne, Germany, Ansari said.

“I understand their anger, I understand why they are celebrating,” she said. “For me, I wish this guy stayed alive so he can be taken to an international court, to look in the eyes of his victims and reply to them. I’m sorry he won’t be able to stand in a court of law and take responsibility for his actions.”

Raisi, 63, was reviled by opponents, and sanctioned by the U.S., for his role in mass executions of political prisoners at the end of Iran’s long war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Many also hold Raisi responsible for the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September 2022 after being detained for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory headscarf law.

Amini’s death sparked mass protests against the country’s ruling theocracy, and a security crackdown that saw more than 500 people killed and over 22,000 detained. A U.N. fact-finding mission found Iranian authorities responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.

“Each member of this regime that goes is a victory for us,” said Guilda Torabi, spokesperson for the Homa association, an Iranian support group in France. “It’s a step forward, a little victory for the Iranian people. It’s one step to vanquishing the regime. We are getting closer to the objective, which gives us hope.”

Raisi had long been considered a potential successor for Iran’s supreme leader, 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in whose hands power ultimately rests, and his death could complicate that process.

Still, short-term instability appears unlikely. First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber has been appointed caretaker president, and a presidential election was called for June 28.

Even thousands of miles from Iran, some expatriates were unwilling to relax their reticence. Iranian critics of the government have been attacked overseas — including Pouria Zeraati, a newscaster with Farsi-language TV channel Iran International, who was stabbed in the leg near his London home in March.

The channel has been demonized for years by Iran’s government, as well as other foreign-language Farsi broadcasters and their journalists. Television in Iran is entirely state-controlled and run by hard-liners, often airing coerced confessions of prisoners.

In the Los Angeles area nicknamed “Tehrangeles” — home to Persian cafes, ice cream parlors, grocery stores and rug shops — a husband and wife eating at the Pink Orchid bakery said that while they cheered the president’s death, they were not optimistic it would bring major changes.

“Everyone knows someone worse is going to come,” said the wife, who grew up in Iran and left when she was 21.

Books in Farsi are displayed on the exterior of a bookstore in the so-called “Tehrangeles” neighborhood in the Westwood district of Los Angeles on Monday, May 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The couple refused to give their names for fear of retaliation against family and friends who remain in Iran, as well as concerns about their own safety.

Poone, who only gave her first name for fear of retaliation against her family in Iran, said Raisi’s death provided a measure of justice. She said the late president “had a lot of blood on his hands.”

Others saw reason for hope.

As news of the crash circulated in Iran on Sunday night, anti-government chants could be heard in some areas of Tehran. Namazie said many Iranians shared dark jokes and social media memes.

Aliasghar Ramezanpoor, executive news director at Iran International, said many Iranians were contacting the station to express happiness at Raisi’s death.

Ramezanpoor said the Islamic Republic’s authorities would likely be shaken by the realization that many Iranians saw the president’s death as cause for celebration.

“People are talking about the crash as a kind of sign of hope,” he said. “Everyone sees how losing a president (caused) national celebration — which sends a powerful message to everyone in the government.”

Namazie said political instability might bring more brutality as the government moved to repress dissent. But even so, “any infighting opens up the space for people to be able to push back the regime, to weaken it.”

“It opens up the space for protest,” she said. “That’s what we need — from below, not any kind of regime change from above, not foreign intervention. People themselves will be able to challenge this regime and bring it to an end.”

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