May 20, 2024

Helicopter Crash Claims Life of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian

Week of May 20, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Helicopter Crash Claims Life of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian

In a shocking turn of events, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi perished in a helicopter crash along with key figures including Mohammad Ali Al-Hashem, Imam of Friday prayers in Tabriz, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the Foreign Minister, and Malek Rahmati, the Governor of East Azerbaijan province. The crash occurred on May 19, 2024, in the Dizmar forest area near Varzaghan in East Azerbaijan. The helicopter was en route to Tabriz for an oil refinery project inauguration after a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and the inauguration of the Qiz Qalasi dam on the border river Aras. 

The helicopter flew in very poor and foggy weather that is believed to have contributed to the fatal crash. Fatholah Omi, an aerospace faculty member at Tarbiat Modares University, highlighted a significant oversight in assessing weather conditions for the president’s flight in an interview with “Entekhab.” Omi asserted that the flying conditions were unsuitable and the neglect of weather considerations led to a helicopter accident during the president’s return journey.

Efforts to locate the wreckage took several hours while the fate of Raisi and his crew were in doubt. 73 rescue teams were deployed who had to contend with poor weather, but were aided by the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service, which provided mapping assistance. A Turkish Akıncı drone played a crucial role in locating the crash site to the northeast of Tavil village. The Ashura Corps commander reported that the severity of the crash left some victims burnt beyond recognition, with three bodies found in a ravine. 

According to Iranian law, the First Vice President – Mohammad Mokhber – has temporarily assumed presidential duties until a new election is organized, which is expected to be held within 50 days. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made efforts to reassure that the country would not face any problems following the death of the President and his entourage. During a gathering with families of the Revolutionary Guards held on the eve of Imam Reza’s birthday, he expressed sorrow and urged everyone to pray for those who had been on the helicopter, asserting that there would be no disruption to the country’s operations.

Reports also indicate that Iran has already begun preparing for elections. Mohammad Mokhber, currently acting as the interim president, will not be a candidate. Current parliamentary speaker and former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former Energy Minister with links to the Revolutionary Guards Parviz Fattah, and former Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani are among those being discussed in political circles as potential candidates.

These elections are taking place just a few months before the U.S. presidential elections, which could move each nation’s electoral cycles into a closer alignment. Following the election of President Joe Biden in 2020, his administration engaged with a lame duck Iranian administration led by Hassan Rouhani for several months until the election of Ebrahim Raisi, which took over negotiations that failed to reach a conclusion.

Many members of the international community have expressed their condolences. On Monday afternoon, the U.S. issued a brief statement: “The United States expresses its official condolences for the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, and other members of their delegation in a helicopter crash in northwest Iran.  As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The Lebanese, Indian, Iraq and Pakistan governments declared national mourning, while Saudi Arabia’s King and Crown Prince sent condolences to Mokhber. From Russia and Venezuela, leaders praised Raisi as “a true friend” and “brother.” Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, reflecting on strengthened ties under his leadership, mourned the loss deeply, extending condolences on behalf of his nation, which, like Iran, faces U.S. oil sanctions.  

Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, who met with Raisi shortly before the accident, described his passing as “heartbreaking.” European Council President Charles Michel, alongside the Japanese government and Rafael Grossi, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also expressed their condolences, noting the significant void left by the incident. Leaders from the Middle East, including the King of Jordan, emphasized solidarity with Iran in these challenging times. The Taliban government and Afghan political figures similarly shared their grief, noting the broader implications of the accident for the Islamic world. Prime Ministers from regional allies like Pakistan and Iraq, along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have sent messages of condolence, stressing the shared sorrow and standing in solidarity with Iran during this difficult period. From the “axis of resistance,” Hamas lauded President Raisi for his steadfast support of the Palestinians, while Hezbollah, which receives substantial backing from Iran, mourned him as a “protector and supporter” of anti-Israel factions in the Middle East.

Raisi, aged 63, was a controversial figure, known for his role in the 1988 executions of thousands of political prisoners as a member of the Iranian judiciary. Before his presidency, he served as Iran’s Attorney General, head of Astan Quds Razavi, and Chief Justice. Notably, his administration took strict stances on the enforcement of mandatory hijab laws, including the brutal crackdowns on the Woman, Life, Freedom Movement after the killing of 22 year-old Mahsa (Zhina) Amini in the custody of morality police that left hundreds killed, thousands injured, and tens of thousands arrested. Raisi’s administration continued to pursue harsh enforcement of mandatory hijab laws, including through the recently-announced “Noor Plan.” 

During Raisi’s tenure, the Iranian economy has also continued to struggle under sanctions, with soaring inflation setting records and wreaking havoc on Iranian society. While conservatives further consolidated power under his administration, Iranians have increasingly turned away from electoral participation, which is a trend that could continue in the upcoming special election. Raisi’s presidency, lasting less than three years, was among the shortest in the history of the Islamic Republic, echoing the tenures of only Mohammad-Ali Rajai and Abolhassan Banisadr.

Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the Iranian Foreign Minister, also died in the crash. 

A senior member of President Raisi’s government, Amir Abdollahian held several influential positions within the Iranian Foreign Ministry, serving as an advisor to Ali Larijani and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, both former and current leaders of the Islamic Consultative Assembly. He was particularly recognized for his close associations with the IRGC’s Quds Force and various Iranian proxy groups in the Middle East, advocating for the “Resistance Front” including after the latest outbreak of war in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

During his confirmation hearings as Foreign Minister, Amir Abdollahian emphasized strengthening the Resistance Front as a cornerstone of the new government’s policy. Born in Damghan in May 1964, he pursued a robust academic and diplomatic career after obtaining his undergraduate degree in diplomatic relations and his master’s and Ph.D. in international relations from Tehran University.

His diplomatic tenure began in 1997 at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad. He later served as the Deputy for Gulf affairs in the Foreign Ministry under Kamal Kharrazi during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency and was appointed Iran’s ambassador to Bahrain during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. He continued to hold significant roles under successive foreign ministers, including his position as Deputy for Arab and African Affairs. His tenure as Foreign Minister was marked by significant events, including ongoing negotiations with the Biden administration aimed at reviving the JCPOA that never culminated in a deal, and the first direct military confrontation between Iran and Israel.

Ali Bagheri Kani, the Deputy Foreign Minister who has been deeply involved in many of Iran’s diplomatic endeavors throughout the Raisi administration, has been announced as the Acting Foreign Minister, which should ensure a degree of continuity. Born in October 1967 in Kan, Bagheri Kani has been a key figure in Iranian diplomacy, serving as the Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs since 2021 and leading the Iranian delegation in nuclear deal revival talks in Vienna. His career has spanned various significant roles, including Deputy for International Affairs at the Iranian Judiciary and Secretary of the Human Rights Headquarters.

Previously aligned with the hardline Saeed Jalili, Bagheri Kani was a prominent critic of nuclear negotiations under President Rouhani’s administration, actively challenging the JCPOA’s content and outcomes in various forums, including television discussions and parliamentary sessions. However, since joining President Raisi’s government, Bagheri Kani has shifted his focus toward revitalizing the JCPOA, establishing himself as one of Iran’s foremost negotiators in recent years. His appointment as interim Foreign Minister is seen as a continuation of Iran’s strategic diplomatic efforts.

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