Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is pictured at Qiz Qalasi, a dam jointly built on the Iran-Azerbaijan border. He was returning from this visit when a helicopter carrying him and other senior government officials crashed in the mountains near Varzaqan.—AFP
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is pictured at Qiz Qalasi, a dam jointly built on the Iran-Azerbaijan border. He was returning from this visit when a helicopter carrying him and other senior government officials crashed in the mountains near Varzaqan.—AFP

• Iranian foreign minister, provincial governor among those onboard missing aircraft
• Khamenei urges nation to not worry amid prayers for president’s safety
• President Zardari, PM Shehbaz concerned; US State Dept says it is ‘monitoring situation’
• Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkiye, Qatar, Iraq, EU offer help with search

DUBAI: A massive search and rescue operation was underway in Iran’s north after a helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi and other senior officials went missing after being involved in a “crash” in the mountainous Varzaqan region under poor weather conditions, on Sunday.

Although Iranian state media offered conflicting accounts, search parties had not found the president’s helicopter until the time of going to press.

State television reported that “an accident happened to the helicopter carrying the president” in the Jolfa region of the western province, while some officials described it as a “hard landing”.

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

The accident happened in the mountainous protected forest area of Dizmar near the town of Varzaqan, said the official IRNA news agency.

Iranian state media said bad weather was the cause of the crash and was complicating rescue efforts. 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.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said one of the helicopters “made a hard landing due to bad weather conditions” and that it was “difficult to establish communication” with the aircraft.

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 Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliev, on the border between the two countries.

More than 40 rescue teams using search dogs and drones were sent to the site, reported the IRNA news agency as TV stations showed pictures of rows of waiting emergency response vehicles.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sought to reassure Iranians, saying there would be no disruption to state affairs.

“The Iranian people should not worry, there will be no disruption in the country’s work,” Khamenei said in a speech carried on state TV. “We hope that Almighty God will bring our dear president and his companions back in full health into the arms of the nation.”

Initially, state TV stated: “The harsh weather conditions and heavy fog have made it difficult for the rescue teams to reach the accident site.”

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 every effort was being made 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 said, adding that forces from specific provinces had been dispatched to the area.

International reaction

Pakistan’s 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. 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.

On the other hand, Russia said it was ready to extend all necessary help in the search for the missing helicopter and the investigation of the reasons for the incident.

Iraq also instructed its interior ministry, the Red Crescent and other relevant bodies to offer help to Iran and assist in the search for Raisi’s helicopter.

Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said he was “profoundly saddened” at news of the helicopter accident involving Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, and offered “all necessary support” to the search.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia too voiced “great concern” and offered to help with the response.

In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, Qatar exp­res­sed its “deep concern” over the helicopter carrying Iran’s president and foreign minister and offered “to provide all forms of support in the search”.

The Gulf state’s foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari gave “Qatar’s wishes for the safety of the president, the foreign minister, and their companions”, the statement added.

Meanwhile, the Euro­pean Union said it had activated its “rapid response mapping service” to help Iran search for President Raisi’s helicopter.

“Upon Iranian request for assistance we are activating the EU’s Coper­nicusEMS rapid response mapping service in view of the helicopter accident reportedly carrying the President of Iran and its foreign minister”, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lena­rcic said on X.

What happens if president dies in office?

Ac­cording to Article 131 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, if a president dies in office, the first vice president takes over, with the confirmation of the sup­reme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state.

A council consisting of the first vice president, the speaker of parliament and the head of the judiciary must arrange an election for a new president within a maximum period of 50 days.

Raisi was elected president in 2021 and, under the current timetable, presidential elections are due to take place in 2025.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2024

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