Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Iran’s hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi killed in helicopter crash

Iran president helicopter in crash - state media
Iran president helicopter in crash – state media

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner seen as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was killed in a helicopter crash in mountainous terrain near the Azerbaijan border, officials and state media said on Monday.

The charred wreckage of the helicopter which crashed on Sunday carrying Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and six other passengers and crew was found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.

“President Raisi, the foreign minister and all the passengers in the helicopter were killed in the crash,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Raisi’s death was later confirmed in a statement on social media by Vice President Mohsen Mansouri and on state television.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme, expressed his condolences for the “martyrdom” of Raisi and his companions, state media reported.

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Khamenei had earlier sought to reassure Iranians, saying there would be no disruption to state affairs.

Iran’s three branches of government held an extraordinary meeting on Monday with First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, who is expected to take over as president, representing the executive branch, Iran’s Judiciary news agency Mizan reported.

If a president dies in office, under the Islamic Republic’s constitution the first vice president takes over for an interim period of 50 days, with the approval of the Supreme Leader.

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A new presidential election would be held at the end of the 50 days.

The crash comes at a time of growing dissent within Iran over an array of political, social and economic crises. Iran’s clerical rulers face international pressure over Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme and its deepening military ties with Russia during the war in Ukraine.

Since Iran’s ally Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, provoking Israel’s assault on Gaza, conflagrations involving Iran-aligned groups have erupted throughout the Middle East.

State media reported that images from the site showed the U.S.-made Bell 212 helicopter slammed into a mountain peak, although there was no official word on the cause of the crash. The dead also included the governor of East Azerbaijan Province and a senior imam from Tabriz city.

An Israeli official told Reuters it was not involved in the crash. “It wasn’t us,” said the official, who requested anonymity.

MESSAGES OF CONDOLENCE

The helicopter went down in Varzeqan region north of Tabriz, state news agency IRNA reported, as Raisi returned from an official visit to the border with Azerbaijan in Iran’s northwest.

Raisi, 63, was elected president in 2021, and since taking office has ordered a tightening of morality laws, overseen a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests and pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers.

Messages of condolences came from Iran’s regional neighbours including the leaders of Syria, Egypt, India, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as the European Union, Italy and Russia.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends a meeting with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev on the Azerbaijan-Iran border

Item 1 of 5 Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends a meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on the Azerbaijan-Iran border, May 19, 2024. Iran’s Presidency/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS

Iran-backed militant group Hamas, fighting Israeli forces in Gaza with Tehran’s support, issued a statement expressing sympathy to the Iranian people for “this immense loss.”

Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the Houthi rebels in Yemen also issued statements praising Raisi and mourning his death.

Meanwhile, the exiled opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, described his death in a statement as a “monumental and irreparable strategic blow” to the Islamic Republic.Reuters Graphics

PRAYERS, SEARCHES

Rescue teams fought blizzards and difficult terrain through the night to reach the wreckage in the early hours of Monday.

“With the discovery of the crash site, no signs of life have been detected among the helicopter’s passengers,” the head of Iran’s Red Crescent, Pirhossein Kolivand, told state TV.

Earlier, the national broadcaster had stopped all regular programming to show prayers being held for Raisi across the country.

Video showed a rescue team, wearing bright jackets and head torches, huddled around a GPS device as they searched a pitch-black mountainside on foot in a blizzard.

Several countries had earlier expressed concern and offered assistance.

The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden had been briefed on reports about the crash. China said it was deeply concerned. The European Union offered emergency satellite mapping technology.

HARDLINER, POSSIBLE SUCCESSOR TO KHAMENEI

In Iran’s dual political system, split between the clerical establishment and the government, it is Raisi’s 85-year-old mentor Khamenei, supreme leader since 1989, who holds decision-making power on all major policies.

For years, many have seen Raisi as a strong contender to succeed Khamenei, who has endorsed Raisi’s main policies.

Raisi’s victory in a closely managed election in 2021 brought all branches of power under the control of hardliners, after eight years when the presidency had been held by pragmatist Hassan Rouhani and a nuclear deal negotiated with powers including Washington.

However, Raisi’s standing may have been dented by widespread protests against clerical rule and a failure to turn around Iran’s economy, hamstrung by Western sanctions.

Raisi had been at the Azerbaijani border on Sunday to inaugurate the Qiz-Qalasi Dam, a joint project. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who said he had bid a “friendly farewell” to Raisi earlier in the day, had offered assistance in the rescue.

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