An armed guard at a bank in northern Iran calmly walked behind a senior Shiite cleric and shot and killed the ayatollah on Wednesday, according to surveillance footage from the site, the most senior cleric killed during months of unrest that has rocked Iran. the Islamic Republic. .

The assassination of Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleimani shocked both bystanders who witnessed the shooting and the general public. The cleric had served on the country’s Assembly of Experts that selects and oversees the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.

It comes after mass protests and a bloody crackdown by security forces against protesters following the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini following her arrest by the country’s moral police.

Authorities did not offer an immediate motive for the attack in Babolsar in Iran’s Mazandaran province, just north of the capital Tehran. Initially, state television described a man overpowering a guard and shooting the cleric.

But subsequent surveillance footage shared widely by Iranian media showed the shooter inside the bank, openly carrying a firearm and briefly circling before walking up to Soleimani and shooting him.

As the shot rings out, Soleimani’s white turban falls to the ground and he is left limp. A window behind the cleric is broken. Two men, one of them in a green uniform, are seen staring and apparently stunned. They then grab the man before he finishes the footage.

The Ministry of the Interior announced that it would launch a special investigation into the murder.

Soleimani, believed to be 77, was part of the Assembly of Experts, an 88-seat panel that oversees the post of Iran’s supreme leader. He also once served as the personal representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran’s troubled southeastern province of Sistan and Balochistan.

Shiite clergy have long had an important role in Iran, one that only became more powerful after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Discontent has risen in recent years, however, particularly amid waves of protests across the country. the country for economic, political and civil rights issues in Iran. The country is struggling with the collapse of the national currency, the rial, and uncertainty over its ties to the rest of the world following the collapse of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Some have criticized the subsidies given to clerics, even though less than 10% of Iran’s 200,000 clerics hold official government jobs and many seminary students work as laborers or taxi drivers to make ends meet.

In Iran’s latest upheaval, protesters have also attacked clerics, with some videos online showing young protesters running after clerics on the street and removing their turbans, a sign of their status.

Seminary students have been among those killed while serving in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Basij volunteer force during demonstrations, the government says.

Yet Soleimani is the highest-ranking cleric to be assassinated in recent years. In April 2022, an Uzbek national stabbed two clerics to death in Mashhad at the Imam Reza shrine.

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