Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Dead in Helicopter Crash

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: May 20, 2024
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends a meeting with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev on the Azerbaijan-Iran border, May 19, 2024. (Image: West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS)

President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi, as well as the country’s foreign minister, have died after their helicopter crashed in poor weather in mountains near the Azerbaijan border, state media reported on Monday, May 20. 

Raisi was seen as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The helicopter carrying Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and six other passengers and crew, crashed on Sunday in a mountainous area near Tabriz, East Azerbaijan province. The wreckage and charred bodies were found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.  

The official IRNA news agency reported that Supreme Leader Khamenei, who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme, said First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber would take over as interim president. 

Khamenei said in a statement: “I announce five days of public mourning and offer my condolences to the dear people of Iran.” 

Iranian state television showed video of the wreckage scattered on a foggy hillside, while separate images from IRNA showed Red Crescent (the national medical emergency) workers carrying a covered body on a stretcher. All those aboard the helicopter were killed, a senior Iranian official had earlier told Reuters.

Leadership shakeup

Under the Islamic Republic’s constitution, a new presidential election must be held within 50 days. Mokhber, like Raisi, is seen as close to Khamenei.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani was appointed as acting foreign minister following the death of Amirabdollahian.

Iran’s clerical rulers are facing international pressure over Tehran’s nuclear program and its deepening military ties with Russia. The incident occurred at a time of growing dissent over an array of political, social, and economic crises within the country. 

Iran’s ally Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, provoking Israel’s declaration of war on Gaza. Other clashes involving Iran-aligned groups have erupted throughout the Middle East.

Last month, after Israel struck the Iranian embassy in Syria, the Islamic Republic retaliated with a launch of hundreds of drones and missiles. 

The dead also included the governor of East Azerbaijan Province and a senior imam from Tabriz city.

An Israeli official told Reuters that the Jewish state was not involved in the crash. 

Condolences

State news agency IRNA reported the incident occurred in the Varzeqan region north of Tabriz, as Raisi returned from an official visit to the border with Azerbaijan.

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.

Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, and Pakistan expressed their condolences towards Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Raisi “a true friend of Russia,” while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “deeply shocked and saddened” at his passing.

Hamas is fighting Israeli forces in Gaza with Tehran’s support. The military group 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 National Council of Resistance of Iran, the exiled opposition of the country, described his death in a statement as a “monumental and irreparable strategic blow” to the Islamic Republic.

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

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

Possible successors

Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran since 1989 is the one who holds decision-making power on all major policies. The country has a dual political system, split between the clerical establishment and the civil government.

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

In 2021 Raisi’s victory in a closely managed election brought all branches of power under the control of hardliners, after eight years of rule held by Hassan Rouhani, who was seen as a more pragmatic figure. 

After the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, however, Raisi’s standing may have been dented by widespread protests against clerical rule and failure to turn around Iran’s economy, heavily sanctioned by the West.

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

Reuters contributed to this report.