Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi killed in helicopter crash, state media confirm

Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and others were found dead Monday hours after their helicopter crashed in a foggy, mountainous region of the country’s northwest, state media reported. Raisi was 63.

The crash comes as the Middle East remains unsettled by the Israel-Hamas war, during which Raisi, under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched an unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel just last month. Under Raisi, Iran enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels, further escalating tensions with the West as Tehran also supplied bomb-carrying drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine and continued arming proxy groups in the Mideast such as Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Iran Azerbaijan
In this photo released by the Iranian Presidency Office, President Ebrahim Raisi attends the inauguration ceremony of dam of Qiz Qalasi, or Castel of Girl in Azeri, at the border of Iran and Azerbaijan with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev, on May 19, 2024. 

Iranian Presidency Office via AP


Meanwhile, Iran has faced years of mass protests against its Shiite theocracy over its ailing economy and women’s rights – making the moment that much more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country.

State TV gave no immediate cause for the crash that occurred in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The Iranian Red Crescent says the bodies have recovered from the crash site, according to Agence France-Presse.

Among the dead was Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, 60. The helicopter also carried the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, other officials and bodyguards, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

Early Monday morning, Turkish authorities released what they described as drone footage showing what appeared to be a fire in the wilderness that they “suspected to be wreckage of helicopter.” The coordinates listed in the footage put the fire some 12 miles south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border on the side of a steep mountain.

Turkiye's Akinci UAV identifies source of heat suspected to be crash site of Iranian president's helicopter
A screen grab from video shot by Turkey’s Akinci Unmanned Aerial Vehicle shows a heat source suspected to be the wreckage of a helicopter that was carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

AA Video / Anadolu via Getty Images


Footage released by the IRNA early Monday showed what the agency described as the crash site, across a steep valley in a green mountain range. Soldiers speaking in the local Azeri language said: “There it is, we found it.”

IRNA: Wreckage of helicopter carrying Iran's president located
A screen grab captured from a video shows the location of the May 19, 2024 wreck of the helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his delegation in Iran on May 20, 2024.

Iranian Red Crescent Society / Handout / Anadolu via Getty Images


 Khamenei himself had urged the public to pray Sunday night.

“We hope that God the Almighty returns the dear president and his colleagues in full health to the arms of the nation,” Khamenei said, drawing an “amen” from the worshipers he was addressing.

Who will succeed Raisi?   

However, the supreme leader also stressed the business of Iran’s government would continue no matter what. Under the Iranian constitution, Iran’s vice first president takes over if the president dies, with Khamenei’s assent, and a new presidential election would be called within 50 days.

First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber already had begun receiving calls from officials and foreign governments in Raisi’s absence, state media reported. An emergency meeting of Iran’s Cabinet was held as state media made the announcement Monday morning. The Cabinet issued a statement afterward pledging it would follow Raisi’s path and that “with the help of God and the people, there will be no problem with management of the country.”

Raisi a hard-liner who formerly led the country’s judiciary, was viewed as a protégé of Khamenei and some analysts had suggested he could replace the 85-year-old leader after Khamenei’s death or resignation.

The helicopter carrying Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi takes off, before it crashed, in border of Iran and Azerbaijan
A helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi takes off, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border, on May 19, 2024. The helicopter later crashed, killing Raisi and others onboard, Iranian state media reported.

Ali Hamed Haghdoust / IRNA/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS


With Raisi’s death, the only other person so far suggested has been Mojtaba Khameini, the 55-year-old son of the supreme leader. However, some have raised concerns over the position being taken only for the third time since 1979 to a family member, particularly after the Islamic Revolution overthrew the hereditary Pahlavi monarchy of the shah.

Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Raisi was sanctioned by the U.S. in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

In 2022, he told “60 Minutes” that the sanctions, which were put in effect by former President Donald Trump and maintained by President Biden, are “tyrannical.” 

“The new administration in the U.S., they claim that they are different from the Trump administration,” Raisi told Lesley Stahl. “They have said it in their messages to us. But we haven’t witnessed any changes in reality.” 

Meanwhile, mass protests in the country have raged for years. The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been earlier detained over allegedly not wearing a hijab, or headscarf, to the liking of authorities. The monthslong security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and saw over 22,000 detained.

In March, a United Nations investigative panel found 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, a bomb blast killed President Mohammad Ali Rajai in the chaotic days after the revolution.

Raisi had been in Azerbaijan early Sunday to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. The dam is the third one that the two nations built on the Aras River. The visit came despite chilly relations between the two nations, including over a gun attack on Azerbaijan’s Embassy in Tehran in 2023, and Azerbaijan’s diplomatic relations with Israel, which Iran’s Shiite theocracy views as its main enemy in the region.

Iran flies a variety of helicopters in the country, but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them. Its military air fleet also largely dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/iranian-president-ebrahim-raisi-killed-helicopter-crash/

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