Helicopter crash feared: No sign of life from Iran’s president

Helicopter crash feared: No sign of life from Iran’s president

A helicopter carrying Iran’s President Raisi and Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian disappears from radar in the northwest of the country. The hours-long mystery about their whereabouts fuels speculation.

Hours after the suspected crash of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hussein Amirabdollahian, there is still no sign of life. According to state media, 65 rescue teams were deployed overnight in the East Azerbaijan province in the northwest of the country, where the helicopter was last located.

Poor rain and wind made the search in the mountainous region difficult. There were nine people on board the helicopter, including the governor of the provincial capital Tabris. The Iranian government refrained from releasing official information and warned against spreading unconfirmed information.

Raisi was returning from a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the afternoon with Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian when their plane disappeared from radar. Together they inaugurated a dam in the neighboring country. The entourage then made its way back to Iran with a total of three helicopters, but the presidential plane did not arrive at its destination.

Iran is threatened with a domestic and foreign policy crisis

As Iranian media reported, the scene of the accident is near Jolfa – more than 600 kilometers from the capital Tehran, close to the border with Azerbaijan. In addition to the rescue teams, the Iranian armed forces were also involved in the search. Several countries offered their help in the rescue operation, and a Turkish drone also flew into Iranian airspace to support the search operation.

Meanwhile, Iran’s cabinet met for an emergency meeting. First Vice President Mohammed Mochber chaired the late evening meeting. According to protocol, he would replace Raisi as head of government in the event of his death. According to the constitution, new elections must then take place within 50 days.

If Raisi and Amirabdollahian were killed in the accident, the Islamic Republic could be plunged into a domestic and foreign policy crisis. Amirabdollahian, in particular, had increasingly come into the public eye as foreign minister since the beginning of the Gaza war and had made numerous trips to allies. Due to the lack of alternatives, the search for a successor for Raisi will be difficult.

Government criticized for repressive policies

In Raisi’s hometown of Mashhad in the northeast of the country, numerous believers gathered at the central pilgrimage shrine, state radio reported. Followers also flocked to mosques in other parts of the country, such as the religious stronghold of Qom. There was great concern that something might have happened to the 63-year-old and also Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian.

However, there were also many Iranians on social media who expressed glee over the alleged downfall of the two politicians. Raisi’s government has been criticized for years because of its ultra-conservative values, the suppression of civil rights and the severe economic crisis in Iran.

There was speculation as to whether the helicopter could have crashed due to a technical defect. Iran’s air force is considered to be very outdated, its modernization is making little progress in the face of strict international sanctions, and spare parts are difficult to obtain. Many planes and helicopters date from before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when the country had close relations with the United States. Serious accidents and crashes occur again and again.

Religious leader Khamenei calls for prayers for Raisi

Religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on the nation to pray for the president. He hoped for Raisi’s return, the state news agency Irna quoted him as saying. At the same time, the head of state assured that the incident would not affect government business. “The Iranian nation should not worry. There will be no interruption in the country’s activities,” Khamenei said, according to Irna.

According to the constitution, Raisi is head of government, but he is considered a rather weak president – especially since Khamenei, as head of state, has the more powerful position and has the final say in all strategic matters. Raisi was sworn in as the new president in August 2021. The arch-conservative cleric officially became the successor to Hassan Rouhani, who was no longer allowed to run after two terms in office. As the top candidate of the political hardliners and the preferred candidate and protégé of the religious leader Khamenei, Raisi won the presidential election with almost 62 percent of the vote.

Iran has been in the headlines more recently, also because there seemed to be a threat of a regional war with its arch-enemy Israel. During Raisi’s term in office, the Islamic Republic deepened its economic and military cooperation with China and Russia, and relations with the West cooled, among other things because of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. The West also accused the leadership in Tehran of serious human rights violations. Nevertheless, just a few days ago there were again reports of new, indirect talks with the USA in the Gulf state of Oman.

Religious hardliner: Raisi as a man of the system

Raisi was born in Mashhad in 1960 and worked in the judiciary for over three decades. In 2019 he was appointed head of justice. In his previous role as public prosecutor, he is said to have been responsible for numerous arrests and executions of political dissidents in 1988, which is why his opponents nicknamed him the “Butcher of Tehran.”

Experts had meanwhile also treated Raisi as a possible successor to Khamenei, who turned 85 in April. Even though the younger generation’s criticism is now increasingly directed against the entire system of the Islamic Republic, Raisi was particularly under pressure domestically. Recently, the government pushed forward with its controversial policy of forcing people to wear headscarves, thereby alienating parts of the population even more.

Raisi’s death is likely to trigger a power struggle

If the presidential office has to be filled, a violent power struggle is likely to break out in Tehran, wrote Iran expert Arash Azizi in an analysis for the US magazine “The Atlantic”. Raisi’s passivity has encouraged challengers among the hardliners. They would see his weak presidency as an opportunity, Azizi wrote. “The death of Raisi would change the balance of power between factions within the Islamic Republic.”

Source: Stern

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