An armed guard at a bank in northern Iran calmly walked up behind a senior Shiite cleric and shot and killed the ayatollah on Wednesday, according to surveillance footage from the site, the most-senior clergyman slain during months of unrest that has shaken the Islamic Republic.
The killing of Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleimani stunned both bystanders who witnessed the shooting and the wider public. The cleric had served on the country’s Assembly of Experts that selects and oversees the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader.
It comes after mass protests and a bloody security force crackdown on demonstrators following the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the country’s morality police.
Authorities offered no 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 later surveillance footage shared widely by Iranian media showed the shooter inside the bank, openly carrying a firearm and milling around briefly before he walked up to Soleimani and shot him.
As the shot rings out, Soleimani’s white turban falls to the floor as he goes limp. A window behind the cleric shatters. Two men, one of them wearing a green uniform, are seen, staring and apparently stunned. They later grab the man before the footage ends.
The Interior Ministry announced it would launch a special investigation into the slaying.
Soleimani, believed to be 77, served on the Assembly of Experts, an 88-seat panel overseeing the post of Iran’s supreme leader. He also once served as the personal representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Iran’s restive southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan.
Shiite clergy have long held an important role in Iran, one that only grew more powerful after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Discontent has increased in recent years, however, particularly amid waves of nationwide protests over economic, political and civil rights issues in Iran. The country is struggling through the collapse of the nation’s currency, the rial, and uncertainty over its ties to the wider world after the collapse of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Some have criticized the subsidies granted to clerics, though fewer than 10% of Iran’s 200,000 clerics have official posts in the government and many seminary students work as laborers or taxi drivers to make ends meet.
Six months of protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa AminiMarch 16, 202304:28
In Iran’s latest turmoil, protesters have also targeted clerics, with some online videos showing young protesters running up behind clerics on the street and knocking off their turbans, a sign of their status.
Seminary students have been among those killed while serving in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard’s volunteer Basij force during the demonstrations, the government says.
However, Soleimani is the most-senior cleric to be killed in recent years. In April 2022, an Uzbek national stabbed two clerics to death in Mashhad at the Imam Reza shrine.