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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The president of Iran is dead.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in northern Iran. He'd been flying with the foreign minister, who was also killed. Raisi was not really the top official in a country where clerics hold supreme power, but he was the top elected official. And the foreign administer routinely shuttled through the region as Iran worked its alliances against enemies, including Israel and the United States.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the story from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So just start by telling us what more you can about the crash.

KENYON: Well, yes, for President Raisi it was a disastrous end to what started out as a pretty routine day. He had traveled to the border with Azerbaijan. He was there to inaugurate a new joint dam project. That all went well. After the ceremony, Raisi and his entourage boarded three helicopters and headed for another event up in northern Tabriz City in Iran. Two of the helicopters made it no problem, but the state media earlier today started posting images purporting to show the crash site of the third helicopter in mountainous terrain in East Azerbaijan province. And the reports quoted the head of Iran's Red Crescent Society as saying there was no trace of survivors.

MARTIN: What has been the reaction to Raisi's death?

KENYON: Well, the government in Tehran convened an emergency meeting right away after the news broke. And Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei named Iran's first vice president, a man named Mohammad Mokhber, as acting president for now. He's not very well-known but has held some key positions. The Iranian cabinet released a statement lauding Raisi as a hard-working president who made the ultimate sacrifice on the path of serving his nation. And Hamas, the Iran-backed proxy militia, expressed complete solidarity with Iran.

Others who know of Raisi's longtime career as a hard-line cleric had varying reactions. He was a protege of Supreme Leader Khamenei. And critics have long condemned his role, Raisi's, role in the committees known as death squads back in the 1980s. They handed down thousands of death sentences to political prisoners. Raisi has been called the supreme leader's enforcer. Recently, he was seen as a supporter of the violent crackdown on women who had failed to comply with Iran's strict Islamic dress code, the hijab.

His government's been the target of massive protests that spread all across the country following the death of one young Kurdish Iranian woman at the hands of Iran's infamous morality police. Those protests were described as the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic in its history.

MARTIN: Look, as Steve just mentioned, this is a cleric-led government, so he's not the supreme figure. But he was the highest elected official. So what does all this mean and what do you think this sort of foretells, this all coming at a time of high tensions, especially with Iran's longtime regional adversary, which is Israel?

KENYON: Well, that's very true and it's an important point. Iran is a longtime backer of these proxy militias around the region. And of course, last October, it was Hamas that broke out of the Gaza strip, killed some 1,200 people, Israel says. The Israeli military responded with a long operation that's still ongoing inside Gaza as the death toll of both fighters and civilians mounts. In addition, after an Israeli strike killed two Iranian generals in Syria, Tehran launched a massive barrage of missiles and drones. And they were mostly all shot down by Israel, the U.S. and other allies. They've signaled a reluctance to continue escalating hostilities. But in a volatile region like the Middle East, there's no guarantee that will continue to be the case.

MARTIN: So what happens next?

KENYON: Well, they're supposed to have elections. They need a new president. They have an acting president. So the one thing we do know is whoever is the next president, he will serve under the supreme leader, who has the final say on all major policy matters.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Peter Kenyon. Peter, Thank you.

KENYON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: As you might imagine, the death of Iran's president and foreign minister is being closely watched in Israel.

INSKEEP: Just last month, Iran and Israel traded attacks, came close to a full-on war. Now Iran's government is in transition, to say the least, while Israel's is in turmoil. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing accusations from his own war cabinet that he doesn't have a strategy for replacing Hamas as the ruler of Gaza.

MARTIN: So let's go now to NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv for the latest from there. Good morning, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So how is Israel responding to the news out of Iran?

ESTRIN: Well, publicly, Israel is not saying anything, but off record, officials have been telling Israeli media that Israel had nothing to do with this helicopter crash. And Israeli analysts say that they don't expect any major changes. I mean, Iran's proxies - the Houthis, Hezbollah - have been waging low-grade war with Israel throughout the entire Gaza war. But there is a lot of concern in Israel about instability in Iran now. Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid met with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Lapid told him Iran will enter a period of instability and he said the strategic relations between the U.S. and Israel are more important than ever.

MARTIN: OK, but let's talk about instability within Israel's own leadership. There's been some very public criticism over Israel's war in Gaza. Tell us more about that.

ESTRIN: Yeah, growing discontent about Netanyahu's exit strategy for the Gaza war. Netanyahu has a war cabinet with two other members and both of those members are now openly challenging him, and one is former army chief Benny Gantz. Here's what he said in a speech this weekend.

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BENNY GANTZ: (Non-English language spoken)

ESTRIN: He said, Prime Minister Netanyahu, I look you in the eyes tonight, and I tell you the choice is in your hands. And Benny Gantz gave him a three-week ultimatum. He said he would quit the government and demand early national elections if there is no plan to replace Hamas with international and local Palestinian supervision. The defense minister in Israel said similar criticism late last week.

MARTIN: How does this seem to be affecting Netanyahu's government and the war?

ESTRIN: Well, if Benny Gantz does follow through and quit the government, Netanyahu can still hold onto power in Israel. But it would just leave Netanyahu more dependent on his own far-right partners, who want something very different for Gaza. They want full Israeli control of Gaza, not even moderate Palestinians taking charge. They want even Israeli settlements in Gaza. And so that could leave Netanyahu with very little room to maneuver U.S. demands on Gaza.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Netanyahu this weekend and said, there needs to be a political strategy for Gaza's future. He said more aid needs to get into Gaza. The U.S. military has started delivering aid by sea, but the Biden administration says the aid getting in is not enough to address the threat of famine in Gaza. And the U.S. says over 800,000 Palestinians have fled Rafah in Gaza in just the last two weeks. Fighting is still fierce in Gaza, Michel, Israeli strikes against Hamas. But also, women and children have been killed recently according to officials there. We're nearly eight months into the war and there's no end in sight.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you as always.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Today is likely the final day of testimony in Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York City.

MARTIN: Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen returns to the stand. The defense continues its cross-examination of him. Then prosecutors get a chance to ask another round of their questions.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein has been covering the trial all along. Andrea, welcome back.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How much damage has the defense already done to Michael Cohen in cross-examination?

BERNSTEIN: Well, they definitely shook him some on Thursday. Trump attorney Todd Blanche was questioning Cohen about a series of lies that Cohen had made. He'd pleaded guilty to lying to Congress during the Russia investigation about a Trump Tower Moscow project. He'd lied to banks on loan applications and pleaded guilty to that. He said during testimony last week he'd misled the Federal Elections Commission on Trump's behalf. And then Blanche got to a phone call Cohen had testified about earlier in the week. Cohen had said he'd called Keith Schiller, Trump's bodyguard, in late October 2016 so he could pass the phone to Trump so they could discuss Stormy Daniels.

INSKEEP: Discussing the actress - the actor who received this payment that is at the center of the trial. Did that phone call happen the way that Michael Cohen had testified that it did?

BERNSTEIN: Well, there's something that Cohen didn't say. Blanche introduced text messages between Cohen and Schiller that the jury hadn't seen before about a 14-year-old who'd been harassing Cohen. So then Blanche said, when you told the jury you were calling to say you'd finalized the deal with Stormy Daniels, that was a lie. And he was raising his voice to punctuate the point. Cohen said it wasn't a lie, but he seemed a little shaken, saying I believe I also spoke to Mr. Trump about the hush money payoff.

INSKEEP: I grant that that must have been dramatic to watch, but what does that exchange add to all the other testimony the jury has heard?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, so this was something different from all the previous prevarications the defense brought up. This was a fresh alleged lie. The defense noted this was only a 96-second call and Cohen maintained he discussed both. It's possible. It's just a little shorter than you and I have been speaking this morning. But the defense clearly thought it had made major headway in its strategy to get the jury to disbelieve everything that Cohen testified to. That said, there's a lot the defense hasn't discussed, including other, longer calls with Trump on the same day that documents show Cohen sent the payment to Stormy Daniels.

INSKEEP: Let's remember that this payment - or rather, the falsification of business records relating to this payment is the big picture of the trial, what the trial is about. Did they get to the reimbursement plan?

BERNSTEIN: They did not. They have yet to question Trump about the testimony that Trump knew of and approved the reimbursement scheme as it was being planned and about the time when he was in the White House signing those $35,000 checks to Cohen every month. The defense could get into that today, but the defense says they only have about an hour and a half of cross-examination to go.

INSKEEP: Will Donald Trump testify in his own defense?

BERNSTEIN: Defense hasn't said. Defense attorneys I've spoken to said that would be foolish because it would put the focus on Trump's lies, not Cohen's. But from previous trials, it's clear Donald Trump believes no one can make his case as well as he can. All he needs is one juror to get to a hung jury. And we are facing summations...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: ...And jury instructions and a possible deliberation, maybe a verdict, this week.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks so much.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Also today, we're waiting for a London court to deliver a decision on Julian Assange, determining whether he can appeal extradition to the United States.

MARTIN: The WikiLeaks founder is wanted in the U.S. on charges of espionage related to the publication of classified government documents more than a decade ago. The court had been seeking assurances from the U.S. about his treatment if he were extradited, including that he would not face the death penalty.

INSKEEP: This may not be the final word. Assange's lawyers have said that if he loses his request for an appeal, he will try again before the European Court of Human Rights.

MARTIN: For more on this story, tune in to MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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