Search and rescue teams in Iran

Search and rescue teams sorted through the wreckage of a helicopter crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on May 20, 2024.

(Photo: Azin Haghighi/Moj News Agency/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Iranian President, Foreign Minister Among Officials Found Dead After Helicopter Crash

The presumed accident "creates a void in the Islamic Republic's leadership amid a deepening legitimacy crisis," said one expert.

Iran's state media confirmed on Monday that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian were among the officials found dead after a helicopter crash in a foggy, mountainous region near the nation's northwest border with Azerbaijan.

The crash killed everyone on board, including East Azerbaijan province Gov. Malek Rahmati; Ayatollah Al-Hashemi, a representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and Mehdi Mousavi, the head of Raisi's protection team, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. They "were returning from an event on the border with Azerbaijan to inaugurate a dam project on Sunday."

The supreme leader declared five days of national mourning and praised the conservative late president, saying that "the entire tenure of Ebrahim Raisi, whether during his short presidency or before that, was spent in tireless service to the people, the country, and Islam."

Khamenei also announced that Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber will take over as president until elections are held within 50 days. IRNAreported that Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, a nuclear negotiator, will serve as acting foreign minister.

National Iranian American Council president Jamal Abdi said the death of the Iranian president and foreign minister "creates a void in the Islamic Republic's leadership amid a deepening legitimacy crisis," explaining that "Raisi came to office in elections that were highly choreographed, even by the Islamic Republic's standards, and which marked a new era of consolidation of power by hardliners and the narrowing of already meager channels for popular political contestation allowed by the regime."

"He entered office with a long history of rights abuses from his time in the Iranian judiciary that oversaw mass executions of political dissidents in 1988 and Raisi's government will be forever known for its brutal crackdown against popular demonstrations during the 'Woman, Life, Freedom' movement," Abdi continued.

Looking to the upcoming special presidential election, Abdi said that "this will pose new challenges for the Islamic Republic, as popular participation in elections has declined precipitously in recent years. Most recently, this spring, the vast majority of Iranian voters stayed home in parliamentary elections where most moderate and reformist candidates were barred from running."

"The state will now weigh its interest in mobilizing public participation in an unprecedented election at a time of great regional turmoil against its fears of popular challenges to its rule amid domestic unease," he added. "The divides between state and society will only deepen if the Guardian Council only approves a narrow list of conservative regime insiders to run for the Iranian presidency."

The crash comes just weeks after Iran and Israel exchanged attacks during an ongoing U.S.-backed Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip—both of which have elevated concerns about a broader war.

As The Associated Pressreported Monday:

Aircraft in Iran face a shortage of parts, often flying without safety checks against the backdrop of Western sanctions. Because of that, former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sought to blame the United States for the crash in an interview Monday.

"One of the main culprits of yesterday's tragedy is the United States, which... embargoed the sale of aircraft and aviation parts to Iran and does not allow the people of Iran to enjoy good aviation facilities," Zarif said. "These will be recorded in the list of U.S. crimes against the Iranian people."

Asked about the ex-minister's remarks on Democracy Now! Monday, Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said that "this is obviously a line that many in the government will take in Iran and point to the sanctions."

"But I think there's also another message that comes with this, which is that they're really pointing to this being an accident and this is an effort for them to put to rest any speculation that perhaps there was some foul play, whether it was internal players or external players," he added. "At this moment, for instance, they will be adamant about denying that Israel had anything to do with this, despite the fact that under normal circumstances, they would be rather quick to blame the Israelis."

Citing unnamed government officials, the Israeli Channel 13 reported Sunday that "the message Israel is sending to the countries of the world is that Tel Aviv has nothing to do with the incident."

In a statement to Reuters, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that "we are closely following reports of a possible hard landing of a helicopter in Iran carrying the Iranian president and foreign minister."

The agency pointed out that the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters aboard Air Force One that U.S. President Joe Biden had been briefed on the situation but "she did not elaborate."

International condolences mounted on Monday. IRNAhighlighted messages from Afghan, Chinese, Iraqi, Egyptian, Emirati, Jordanian, Lebanese, Malaysian, Palestinian, Pakistani, Philippine, Qatari, Saudi, Syrian, Tajik, Uzbek, and Yemeni officials. There were also comments from leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union as well as Azerbaijan, France, Kuwait, Poland, Turkey, and Russia.

Turkey's Anadolu Agencynoted that "the Iranian Red Crescent Society announced early Monday that they had found the location of the wreckage... after it was detected by a Turkish Akinci unmanned aerial vehicle."

This post has been updated with comment from the National Iranian American Council.

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