Iran President Ebrahim Raisi’s helicopter ‘crashes upon landing’ in Varzaqan region: state media

Published May 19, 2024
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi speaks in Tehran in this file photo from December 2022. — AFP/File
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi speaks in Tehran in this file photo from December 2022. — AFP/File
Members of the search and rescue team can be seen in discussion with each other.—Photo courtesy: ISNA
Members of the search and rescue team can be seen in discussion with each other.—Photo courtesy: ISNA

A helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials was involved in a “crash upon landing” in the mountainous Varzaqan region of the country under poor weather conditions on Sunday, state media Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported, with search and rescue efforts underway but no news yet on his condition.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, Governor of East Azerbaijan province Malek Rahmati and others were also onboard the convoy, which comprised of three helicopters, of which the other two have landed safely.

The accident occurred when Raisi was returning from his visit of East Azerbaijan province where he inaugurated a dam project in the company of his Azeri counterpart, Ilham Aliev, on the border between the two countries.

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on May 19, 2024, shows Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi (L) and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev meeting at the site of Qiz Qalasi ahead of its inauguration ceremony.—AFP
A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on May 19, 2024, shows Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi (L) and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev meeting at the site of Qiz Qalasi ahead of its inauguration ceremony.—AFP

“The harsh weather conditions and heavy fog have made it difficult for the rescue teams to reach the accident site,” state TV initially said in an on-screen news alert.

The head of Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS), Pir Hossein Kolivand, was quoted as saying by Iran’s Tasnim news agency that “40 rapid response teams from the IRCS are currently conducting search operations” in the area where the helicopter carrying President Raisi was reported to have crashed.

Kolivand said that the “weather conditions are extremely unfavourable and the terrain is difficult to navigate,” but “we are making every effort to carry out the necessary actions.”

“We have utilised drones and aerial measures, but due to the poor weather conditions, aerial search operations are not feasible. The area is rugged and mountainous,” he added.

“We have also dispatched forces from specific provinces to ensure that more personnel are on-site.”

‘Hopeful but information coming from crash site concerning’

Separately, an Iranian official told Reuters that the helicopter carrying Raisi and others crashed as it was crossing mountain terrain.

The official said the lives of both the individuals were “at risk following the helicopter crash”.

“We are still hopeful but information coming from the crash site is very concerning,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The chief of staff of Iran’s army ordered all the resources of the army and the elite Revolutionary Guard to be put to use in search and rescue operations.

“It is dark and it has started raining, but the search continues. Rescue teams have reached the area … however, the rain has created mud, making the search difficult,” a local reporter told state TV.

State TV had earlier stopped all its regular programming to show prayers being held for Raisi across the country.

The semi-official Fars news agency called on Iranians to pray for Raisi following the reports.

International reaction

President Asif Ali Zardari said he was “deeply concerned” about the news of the crash and expressed his wishes for the Iranian president and foreign minister in a post on X.

“My heartfelt prayers & good wishes for the well-being & safety of President Raisi so that he may continue to serve the Iranian nation”, he posted.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also took to X to express his concerns and extend his well wishes to President Raisi.

“Waiting with great anxiety for good news that all is well,” he wrote. “Our prayers and best wishes are with President Raisi and the entire Iranian nation.”

A spokesperson for the US State Department said it was “closely watching” reports of the helicopter crash.

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said the country was “deeply disturbed” by reports of the helicopter crash and prayed for “the safety of the government officials who were involved in the accident.

Posting on X, the ministry said, “Azerbaijan is ready to provide all necessary support as a friendly and brotherly state.”

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said he was profoundly troubled by news of the Iranian president’s helicopter crash landing after bidding a friendly farewell to Raisi earlier in the day.

“Today, after bidding a friendly farewell to the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, we were profoundly troubled by the news of a helicopter carrying the top delegation crash-landing in Iran,” Aliyev said.

“Our prayers to Allah Almighty are with President Ebrahim Raisi and the accompanying delegation. As a neighbour, friend, and brotherly country, the Republic of Azerbaijan stands ready to offer any assistance needed,” he added.

Meanwhile, Iraq has instructed its interior ministry, the Red Crescent and other relevant bodies to offer help to neighbouring Iran and assist in the search for Raisi’s helicopter, the Iraqi government said in a statement on Sunday.

Years of crisis and conflict

Raisi has been president of the Islamic Republic since June 2021, succeeding the moderate Hassan Rouhani, for a term during which Iran has faced crisis and conflict.

He took the reins of a country in the grip of a deep social crisis and an economy strained by US sanctions against Tehran over its contested nuclear programme.

Iran saw a wave of mass protests triggered by the death in custody of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini in September 2022.

In March 2023, regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia signed a surprise deal that restored diplomatic relations.

The bombardment in Gaza that began on October 7 sent regional tensions soaring again and a series of tit-for-tat escalations led to Tehran launching hundreds of missiles and rockets directly at Israel in April 2024.

In a speech following Sunday’s dam inauguration, Raisi emphasised Iran’s support for Palestinians, a centrepiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“We believe that Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world and we are convinced that the people of Iran and Azerbaijan always support the people of Palestine and Gaza and hate the Zionist regime,” said Raisi.

Raisi, born in 1960 in northeast Iran’s holy city of Mashhad, rose early to high office. Aged just 20, he was named prosecutor-general of Karaj next to Tehran.

He served as Tehran’s prosecutor-general from 1989 to 1994, deputy chief of the Judicial Authority for a decade from 2004, and then national prosecutor-general in 2014.

His black turban signifies direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed, and he holds the religious title of “Hujjatul Islam”, literally “proof of Islam”, one rank below that of ayatollah in the Shiite clerical hierarchy.

In Iran’s dual political system, split between the clerical establishment and the government, it is Raisi’s 85-year-old mentor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader since 1989, who has the final say 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 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.

He was in Pakistan on a three-day visit last month where the two sides committed to increasing the trade volume to $10 billion over the next five years and attempted to mend ties after tit-for-tat missile strikes in January.

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