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Iran’s president and foreign minister died in helicopter crash

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A picture from the Iranian news agency IRNA shows the helicopter carrying the Iranian president as it takes off from the border with Azerbaijan where President Ebrahim Raisi and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev inaugurated a dam on Sunday. Photo: Ali Hamed Haghdoust / IRNA / AP / NTB

Of NTB | 20.05.2024 09:39:27

Policy: There were no signs of life when the wreckage of the helicopter was found early Monday morning. The news agency says everyone on board lost their lives in the helicopter crash on Sunday afternoon.

The accident happened near the border with the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. At 15:00 on Sunday, state Iranian TV reported that a helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi had suffered a “hard landing” in the west of the country. The accident site is in a poorly accessible area near the border with Nakhchivan.

A large search operation was launched, while rain, fog and wind made the search difficult. Large rescue teams took part in the search operation, and Iran also received assistance from Turkey and Russia.

A little before dawn, word came that a Turkish drone that had been deployed in the search had picked up a heat source that could be the missing helicopter. When rescuers arrived at the scene, they found a burnt-out wreckage.

The Iranian Red Crescent confirmed at 8.30 that all the dead had been removed from the accident site.

– I am deeply shocked by the news that the helicopter carrying Iran’s president has crashed. Our thoughts and prayers are with Raisi and his entourage. Azerbaijan is ready to help, says a statement from Aliyev on Sunday evening.

The helicopter that crashed is said to have been one of three that transported the president and his entourage. In addition to the president and the foreign minister, the governor of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, other officials and bodyguards were also on board.

The Iranian government held an emergency meeting late Sunday, where Vice President Mohammad Mokhber introduced additional measures related to the rescue operation. As first vice-president, it is Mokhber who takes over as interim president after Raisi. Within 50 days, he has to organize a new presidential election in Iran together with the president of the national assembly and the head of the judiciary.

Mokhber, like Raisi, is considered a close supporter of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters. Mokhber became vice president when Raisi became president in 2021.

– If the Iranian people do not worry, our country will not be affected, he said.

In a cabinet meeting on Monday morning, the government announced that it will continue its work “without the slightest disturbance”.

Raisi, who turned 63, was considered Khamenei’s protégé, and some experts had suggested he could replace Iran’s 85-year-old supreme leader after his death or resignation. Raisi was conservative and previously headed Iran’s judiciary, so he was seen as someone who could uphold Khameini’s strict Shiite theocracy.

Raisi won the 2021 presidential election, an election that had the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s 45-year history. At the time of his death, he was still under US sanctions, in part for his role in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners during the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s.

An Israeli official said on Monday that Israel had nothing to do with the helicopter crash. “It wasn’t us,” said the person, who wishes to remain anonymous, to the Reuters news agency.

Iran has supported armed anti-Israeli groups in several countries, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas says it mourns Raisi’s death, and pays tribute to him for his “support for the Palestinian resistance movement”. Hezbollah refers to Raisi as a “protector of the resistance movement and their goals” and a close ally.

Several countries have also expressed their condolences, including Russia, Turkey, India, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. In Pakistan, a national day of mourning has been declared in connection with the helicopter crash, while in Lebanon three days of national mourning have been declared. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov refers to Raisi as a “true friend of Russia”.

EU President Charles Michel has also expressed his condolences to Iran and says his thoughts go out to the relatives after the accident.

The months-long security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and led to over 22,000 being arrested by the authorities.

In March, an investigation panel at the UN concluded that Iran was responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.

Raisi is the second Iranian president to die in office. In 1981, President Muhammad Ali Rajai was killed in a bomb explosion in the country, in the first chaotic days after the Islamic Revolution.

The reason for Raisi’s helicopter crash is not yet known.

Raisi had been in Azerbaijan on Sunday morning to inaugurate a dam together with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. It was on the way home from this trip that the helicopter accident happened.

Khamenei said in a statement while the search operation was underway that the nation “should pray” for the president’s health and prosperity, according to Iran’s IRIB.

The helicopter accident occurs at a turbulent time for Iran and the Middle East. The war between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip has caused strong reactions in the Arab countries, and most recently in April, Iran ended up in a new conflict with arch-enemy Israel when they carried out a drone and rocket attack in response to an Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus in Syria.

The last few years have also been very turbulent at home, where there have been mass demonstrations as a result of Iran’s ailing economy and women’s rights. The latter was triggered by the death in 2022 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a woman who was detained for allegedly not wearing the hijab “correctly”.

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