Iranian President and foreign minister found dead at helicopter crash site

20 May 2024, 11:34

Rescuers on a mountaintop
Iran. Picture: PA

Ebrahim Raisi was among several officials found dead at the site of the crash in a mountainous area in the country’s north-west.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and several other officials have been found dead, hours after their helicopter crashed in a mountainous region of the country’s north-west, state media reported.

The crash comes as the Middle East remains unsettled by the Israel-Hamas war, during which 63-year-old Mr Raisi, under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel just last month.

Khamenei has announced that Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, would serve as the country’s acting President until elections are held.

During Mr Raisi’s term in office, Iran enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels, further escalating tensions with the West as Tehran also supplied bomb-carrying drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine and armed militia groups across the region.

Iran has also faced years of mass protests against its Shia theocracy over its ailing economy and women’s rights – making the moment that much more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country.

The helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi shortly before the crash (IRNA via AP)

State TV gave no immediate cause for the crash that occurred in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province amid foggy conditions.

Among the dead was Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, 60.

The helicopter also carried the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and other officials, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

Mohammad Mokhber
Mohammad Mokhber has been appointed acting President (Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

IRNA said the crash killed eight people in all, including three crew members on the Bell helicopter, which Iran purchased in the early 2000s.

Aircraft in Iran face a shortage of parts, often flying without safety checks over Western sanctions. Because of that, former Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sought to blame the United States for the crash in an interview on Monday.

Mr Zarif said: “One of the main culprits of yesterday’s tragedy is the United States, which … embargoed the sale of aircraft and aviation parts to Iran and does not allow the people of Iran to enjoy good aviation facilities.

Hossein Amirabdollahian
Foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was among the dead (AP)

“These will be recorded in the list of US crimes against the Iranian people.”

The US has yet to comment publicly on Mr Raisi’s death.

Early on Monday morning, Turkish authorities released what they described as drone footage showing what appeared to be a fire in the wilderness that they “suspected to be wreckage of helicopter”.

The coordinates listed in the footage put the fire some 12 miles south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border on the side of a steep mountain.

Helicopter crash scene
Rescue teams’ vehicles at the site the incident in Varzaghan, north-western Iran (Moj News Agency via AP)

Footage released by the IRNA early on Monday showed what the agency described as the crash site, across a steep valley in a green mountain range. Soldiers speaking in the local Azeri language said: “There it is, we found it.”

Condolences poured in from neighbours and allies after Iran confirmed there were no survivors from the crash.

Pakistan announced a day of mourning and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a post on X that his country “stands with Iran in this time of sorrow”.

Ebrahim Raisi
Five days of mourning were announced for Mr Raisi (Dia Images via AP)

Leaders of Egypt and Jordan also offered condolences, as did Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said he and his government were “deeply shocked”. Mr Raisi had been returning on Sunday after traveling to Iran’s border with Azerbaijan to inaugurate a dam with Mr Aliyev when the crash happened.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan conveyed his condolences. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a statement released by the Kremlin, described Mr Raisi “as a true friend of Russia”.

Khamenei, who had himself urged the public to pray Sunday night, stressed the business of Iran’s government would continue no matter what.

Crash site
The crash is said to have taken place during foggy conditions in a mountainous area (Moj News Agency via AP)

Under the Iranian constitution, Iran’s vice first president takes over if the president dies, with Khamenei’s assent, and a new presidential election would be called within 50 days. Khamenei’s condolence message Monday over Raisi’s death, declared five days of public mourning and acknowledged Mr Mokhber had taken the role of acting president.

Mr Mokhber had already begun receiving calls from officials and foreign governments in Raisi’s absence, state media reported.

An emergency meeting of Iran’s cabinet was held as state media made the announcement on Monday morning.

The cabinet issued a statement afterward pledging it would follow Mr Raisi’s path and that “with the help of God and the people, there will be no problem with management of the country”.

A woman prays
An Iranian woman prays for President Ebrahim Raisi in a ceremony at Vali-e-Asr square in Tehran (AP)

A hard-liner who formerly led the country’s judiciary, Mr Raisi was viewed as a protege of Khamenei, and some analysts had suggested he could replace the 85-year-old leader after Khamenei’s death or resignation.

Following Mr Raisi’s death, the only other person so far suggested has been Mojtaba Khameini, the 55-year-old son of the Supreme Leader.

However, some have raised concerns over the position being taken only for the third time since 1979 by a family member, particularly after the Islamic Revolution overthrew the hereditary Pahlavi monarchy of the shah.

Mr Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. He was sanctioned by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

By Press Association

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