RESCUERS recover the body of a victim from the crash site of a helicopter that was carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, northwestern Iran, on Monday.—AFP
RESCUERS recover the body of a victim from the crash site of a helicopter that was carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, northwestern Iran, on Monday.—AFP

• Military announces probe into deadly crash; funerals to be held in Tabriz today
• Khamenei names First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as interim leader
• Pakistan declares day of mourning, flags flown at half mast; condolences pour in from around the world

TEHRAN: Iran announced five days of public mourning on Monday, after the wreckage of a helicopter carrying Presi­dent Ebrahim Raisi and his entourage was found among the mountains in the country’s remote western regions.

On Monday, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber was picked to become interim president, while the military’s chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri ordered a probe into the cause of the helicopter crash.

“A high-ranking committee to launch an investigation into the cause of the president’s helicopter crash”, ISNA news agency reported.

“The funeral ceremonies for the president and his companions will take place Tuesday at 9:30 am local time (0600 GMT) in Tabriz”, the official IRNA news agency said, adding that Raisi’s body will later be taken to Tehran.

A thick blanket of fog had shrouded the mountains where President Ebrahim Raisi’s helicopter crashed, keeping the wreckage hidden for around 15 hours.

Radio contact was lost on Sunday afternoon, but it took an all-night effort involving hundreds of search and rescue crew before the wreckage was found shortly after the sun rose on Monday.

First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber (left) addresses the cabinet in Tehran, with the seat of late president Raisi next to him left empty out of respect, on Monday.—AFP
First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber (left) addresses the cabinet in Tehran, with the seat of late president Raisi next to him left empty out of respect, on Monday.—AFP

When the first teams finally reached the crash site on a steep and soggy slope, covered in sparse mountain forest, they found the twisted remains of the blue and white Bell 212 helicopter, surrounded by soot-covered debris strewn across the low scrub of the range in East Azerbaijan province.

There were no survivors among the nine people on board at the accident site, located some three kilometres northeast of the small village of Tavil.

The victims included the president, foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a provincial governor and an imam, the aircraft’s three crew and two bodyguards, officials said.

Many of the remains were charred, but they could be identified without DNA tests, an official told Tasnim news agency.

After a night that had seen mass prayers at mosques across the country, state media reported that the aircraft had “hit the mountain and disintegrated” on impact, leaving “no signs of life”.

Iranians had been captivated by the search, and images from the crash were shared on social media, including one that showed a victim in a white shirt lying amid the debris and dense foliage.

Loyalists packed into mosques and squares to pray for Raisi, but most shops remained open and the authorities made little effort to interrupt ordinary life. Opponents even posted furtive video online of people passing out sweets to celebrate his death.

Iranians gather at Tehran’s Valiasr Square, on Monday, to mourn the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.—AFP
Iranians gather at Tehran’s Valiasr Square, on Monday, to mourn the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.—AFP

But, according to Reuters, there was little of the emotional rhetoric that accompanied the deaths of publicly revered figures, like Qasem Soleimani, a senior commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards killed by a US missile in 2020 in Iraq, whose funeral drew huge crowds of mourners, weeping with sorrow and rage.

The crash came as Raisi and his entourage were on their way back from East Azer­baijan province, after having inaugurated a dam project with the Azeri president.

Condolences from Pakistan

On Monday, the Pakistan government declared a day of mourning, with the country’s political leadership uniting to offer condolences to Iran, remembering the contributions of President Raisi and his foreign minister Amir Hossain Abdollahian to strengthening bilateral ties.

Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif personally visited the Iranian Embassy in the capital to convey his condolences over the tragedy and signed the condolence book available there.

PM Shehbaz, while talking to Iranian envoy Reza Amiri Moghaddam at the embassy, reminisced about his interactions with the late president, including his visit to Pakistan last month. He paid tribute to him, describing him as “a great leader, a visionary, and a scholar.”

Shortly after the Iranian government confirmed Presi­dent Raisi’s death, PM Shehbaz declared a national day of mourning, ordering the national flag to be flown at half-mast in respect for those who perished in the crash, and as a gesture of solidarity with Iran.

Acting President Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani also described Raisi’s death as “an irreparable tragedy” and noted that both the Parliament and the people of Pakistan acknowledged his significant political and social contributions.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif writes a note in a book of condolence at Iran’s embassy, as Ambassador Reza Amiri Moghadam looks on.—AFP
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif writes a note in a book of condolence at Iran’s embassy, as Ambassador Reza Amiri Moghadam looks on.—AFP

Foreign Office said that the tragic news of “the martyrdom” of President Raisi, and Foreign Minister Abdollahian left Pakistan “deeply shocked and saddened”.

Former Prime Minister and founder of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf Imran Khan, who is currently in jail, in a message posted on his X account, said, “We are deeply grieved to hear of the tragic deaths of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a helicopter crash. They led their country’s resolute support for the beleaguered Palestinian people.”

Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, in a statement, said that every Pakistani is deeply grieved over the saddest incident and stands in solidarity with Iranian brethren.

Global outpouring

Members of the UN Security Council on Monday observed a minute of silence in memory of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his entourage who were killed in a helicopter crash.

Mozambique Ambassador Pedro Comissario Afonso, who holds the rotating Council presidency in May, asked members to stand up and remain silent “in remembrance of the loss of life in a crash of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ebrahim Raisi” and his team, which took place on Sunday.

Iran’s Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman sent their condolences. Jassem al-Budaiwi, secretary-general of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), called it a “tragic accident”.

Hamas, which the West claims receives financial and military support from Iran, paid tribute to Raisi’s “support for the Palestinian resistance, and tireless efforts in solidarity” with Palestinians.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to interim president Mohammad Mokhber and to the whole Iranian people over Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash, describing Raisi as a “reliable partner who made an invaluable personal contribution” to bilateral relations.

A Rescue team scours the mountains in Varzaqan, East Azerbaijan, following the crash of the helicopter carrying Iran’s president.—Reuters
A Rescue team scours the mountains in Varzaqan, East Azerbaijan, following the crash of the helicopter carrying Iran’s president.—Reuters

President Xi Jinping said “the Chinese people have lost a good friend,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a press conference.

The United States also expressed its condolences over the death of President Raisi, FM Amir-Abdollahian and other members of their delegation, saying, “As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

The Taliban government in Kabul, whose relationship with Tehran has been tenuous at best, also expressed regret over the deaths of Iran’s president and other officials.

Succession

Although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, would take over as interim president, the Islamic Republic’s constitution says a fresh presidential election must be held within 50 days.

Any candidate must first be vetted by the Guardian Council, a hardline watchdog that has often disqualified even prominent conservative and moderate officials, meaning the overall thrust of Iranian policy would be unlikely to change.

Though far from being a foregone conclusion in Iran’s opaque politics, Raisi had been widely seen as a leading candidate to succeed Khamenei.

The Supreme Leader holds ultimate power in Iran, acting as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and deciding on the direction of foreign policy, defined largely by confrontation with the United States and Israel.

While Khamenei has not endorsed a successor, Iran watchers say Raisi was one of the two names most often mentioned, the second being Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba, who is widely believed to wield influence behind the scenes.

Khamenei, however, has indicated opposition to his son’s candidacy because he does not want to see any slide back towards a system of hereditary rule.

Raisi, backed by a group that wanted to see him become supreme leader, clearly wanted the role, said Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“There’s no other candidate right now (with) that kind of a platform and that’s why the presidential elections in Iran, however they unfold, will be the first decider about what comes next,” Mr Nasr said.

“Now they don’t have a candidate, and that opens the door for other factions or other figures to emerge as serious contenders,” he said.

However, it was claimed that Raisi had been taken off a list of potential successors some six months ago because of his sagging popularity, driven by widespread protests against clerical rule following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in morality police custody, and a failure to turn around Iran’s economy, hamstrung by Western sanctions.

Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, said that “none but a handful at the top likely know how much of the Raisi-as-heir narrative had a basis in reality”.

“On foreign policy, the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will continue to dominate strategic decisions”, he said on social media site X, anticipating “more continuity than change”.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

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