Iran’s hardliner president killed in helicopter crash

Jon Gambrell |

A helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has had to make an emergency landing.
A helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has had to make an emergency landing.

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

The crash comes as the Middle East remains unsettled by the Israel-Hamas war, during which Raisi, who was 63, under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched an unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel only a month earlier in April.

Khamenei announced on Monday that Iran’s first vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, would serve as the country’s acting president until elections were held.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi
President Ebrahim Raisi was viewed as a protege of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (AP PHOTO)

During 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.

Among the dead was Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, 60.

The helicopter also carried the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, a senior cleric from Tabriz, three crew members and a Revolutionary Guard official, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

IRNA said the crash killed eight people aboard the Bell helicopter, which Iran purchased in the early 2000s.

Aircraft in Iran face a shortage of parts, often flying without safety checks against the backdrop of Western sanctions.

State TV gave no immediate cause for the crash on Sunday.

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

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian
Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian died along with Raisi in the crash. (AP PHOTO)

Ali Bagheri Kani, a nuclear negotiator for Iran, will serve as the country’s acting foreign minister.

Turkish authorities on Monday released drone footage showing what appeared to be a fire on the side of a steep mountain that they “suspected to be wreckage of helicopter” about 20km south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border.

Condolences came from Iran’s regional neighbours including the leaders of Turkey, India, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as China, the European Union and Russia.

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

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

Israel, meanwhile, denied involvement in the crash. “It wasn’t us,” said an Israeli official, who requested anonymity.

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

Rescuers carry the body of a victim of the helicopter crash in Iran
Rescuers uncovered eight victims of the helicopter crash near the border with Azerbaijan. (AP PHOTO)

Under Iran’s constitution, Iran’s first vice-president takes over if the president dies, with Khamenei’s assent, and a presidential election is called within 50 days.

Khamenei’s issued a condolence message over Raisi’s “martyrdom” and declared five days of public mourning.

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

The cabinet pledged it would follow Raisi’s path and “with the help of God and the people, there will be no problem with management of the country”.

A hardliner who formerly led the country’s judiciary, 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.

With Raisi’s death, the only other person suggested has been Mojtaba Khameini, the 55-year-old son to the supreme leader.

Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, a vote that saw the lowest turnout by percentage in the Islamic Republic’s history.

People pray for President Ebrahim Raisi in Vali-e-Asr square, Tehran
The supreme leader expressed his condolences and urged people to pray for Raisi. (AP PHOTO)

The US sanctioned Raisi 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.

Under Raisi, Iran continues to enrich uranium and hampers international inspections.

Iran has armed Russia in its war on Ukraine, as well as launched a massive drone-and-missile attack on Israel amid its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

It has also continued arming proxy groups such as the Houthis and Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, mass protests in the country have raged for years.

The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been detained over allegedly not wearing a hijab, or headscarf, to the liking of authorities.

The months-long crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and resulted in more than 22,000 detained.

Raisi is the second Iranian president to die in office after a bomb blast killed Mohammad Ali Rajai in 1981.

AP with Reuters