Israel says ‘it wasn’t us’ after Iran's President ‘Butcher of Tehran’ Ebrahim Raisi dies in helicopter crash

20 May 2024, 11:10 | Updated: 20 May 2024, 14:35

  • Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi killed in a helicopter crash
  • Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several others also killed
  • Helicopter crashed after getting in trouble in heavy fog
  • President was heading to Tabriz after a dam opening ceremony
  • Hardline cleric was close to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
  • Election will take place in the next 50 days
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi has been killed in a helicopter crash along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several others
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi has been killed in a helicopter crash along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several others. Picture: Shutterstock/Alamy

By Asher McShane

Israeli officials have denied any involvement in the crash that claimed the life of the ‘Butcher of Tehran’ Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi.

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An Israeli official told Reuters that Israel was not involved in the death of the Iranian president. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “it wasn’t us”.

Hours after Tehran confirmed the death of Raisi and his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the president as a “noble and selfless” servant to his country and also confirmed that new elections would be held in 50 days.

He said Raisi died in an  “unfortunate incident that occurred while he was performing official duties.”

Raisi, foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and seven others were found dead at the site of a helicopter crash.

The craft came down yesterday in a remote region in the country's north-west - with a search party working overnight to find the wreckage.

President Raisi, 63, was travelling with officials when the craft came down yesterday near Jolfa, a city on the Azerbaijani border.

Search teams navigate their way through the wreckage
Search teams navigate their way through the wreckage. Picture: Shutterstock

Pictures released by Iranian state media showed his helicopter taking off just moments before the crash which has sent shockwaves through the country.

State media in Iran previously said there was "no sign of life" at the crash site.

Rescuers recovering bodies at the site of President Ebrahim Raisi's helicopter crash
Rescuers recovering bodies at the site of President Ebrahim Raisi's helicopter crash. Picture: Shutterstock

Mr Raisi helped oversee the mass executions of thousands in 1988 and later led the country as it enriched uranium near weapons-grade levels and launched a major drone-and-missile attack on Israel.

Read more: Who is Ebrahim Raisi?: Iran's President nicknamed 'The Butcher of Tehran' feared dead after helicopter crash

Image shows helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi taking off
Image shows helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi taking off. Picture: Alamy

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

Under Mr Raisi, 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.

Read more: Read more: Suella Braverman warns Iranian regime 'funding and supporting' 'targeted attacks' on UK streets

Medical and rescue teams from Iranian town of Verzegan arrive at the accident site
Medical and rescue teams from Iranian town of Verzegan arrive at the accident site. Picture: Alamy
Medical and rescue teams from Iranian town of Verzegan arrive at accident site
Medical and rescue teams from Iranian town of Verzegan arrive at accident site. Picture: Alamy

State media initially said the incident happened near Jolfa, about 375 miles (600km) from Tehran, but then put it further east near the village of Uzi.

President Raisi had been in Azerbaijan for the inauguration of a dam with the country's president, Ilham Aliyev.

"The esteemed president and company were on their way back aboard some helicopters and one of the helicopters was forced to make a hard landing due to the bad weather and fog," Mr Vahidi said on state TV.

"Various rescue teams are on their way to the region but because of the poor weather and fogginess it might take time for them to reach the helicopter."

Mr Vahidi added: "The region is a bit [rugged] and it's difficult to make contact. We are waiting for rescue teams to reach the landing site and give us more information."

Read more: D-Day parachute jump scaled down due to lack of aircraft, as RAF bosses scramble to fill gaps

A rescue helicopter tried to reach the site but couldn't land due to the fog, emergency services spokesman Babak Yektaparast told IRNA.

The army's chief of staff ordered all resources to be deployed. Iraq also offered to help.

Who is Ebrahim Raisi? Iran's "feared dead" President

What we know so far

Who was on board the helicopter and where were they going?

The helicopter was carrying Mr Raisi, Mr Amirabdollahian, the governor of Iran's East Azerbaijan province and other officials and bodyguards, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

Mr Raisi was returning on Sunday after traveling to Iran's border with Azerbaijan to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev when the crash happened in the Dizmar forest in Iran's East Azerbaijan province, under circumstances that remain unclear.

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

How did the search operation go?

Iranian officials have said the mountainous, forested terrain and heavy fog impeded search and rescue operations, which began on Sunday.

The president of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, Pir-Hossein Koulivand, said 40 search teams were on the ground despite "challenging weather conditions".

Because of the bad weather, it was "impossible to conduct aerial searches" via drones, the official said, according to IRNA.

How was the crash site found?

In the early hours of Monday, Turkish authorities released drone footage showing what appeared to be a fire in the wilderness that they "suspected to be wreckage of a helicopter".

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

Footage released by IRNA 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."

Shortly afterwards, state TV reported in an on-screen scrolling text: "There is no sign of life from people on board."

How will Raisi's death affect Iran?

Mr Raisi was seen as a protege to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a potential successor for his position within the country's Shia theocracy.

Under the Iranian constitution, if a president dies, the country's first vice president - in this case, Mohammad Mokhber - would become president. Khamenei has publicly assured Iranians that there would be "no disruption to the operations of the country" as a result of the crash.

What has the international reaction been?

After the news first broke of the search operation, countries including Russia, Iraq and Qatar made formal statements of concern about Mr Raisi's fate and offered to assist in the search.

Azerbaijani President Aliyev offered any support necessary. Relations between the two countries have been chilly due to Azerbaijan's diplomatic relations with Israel, Iran's regional arch-enemy.

Saudi Arabia, traditionally a rival of Iran although the two countries have recently made a rapprochement, said it stands by Iran "in these difficult circumstances".

There was no immediate official reaction from Israel. Last month, following an Israeli strike on an Iranian consular building in Damascus that killed two Iranian generals, Tehran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel.

They were mostly shot down and tensions have apparently since subsided.

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