Iran mourns president Raisi’s death in helicopter crash

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

TEHRAN: Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi was confirmed dead on Monday after search and rescue teams found his crashed helicopter in a fog-shrouded mountain region, sparking mourning in the Islamic republic.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate authority in Iran, declared five days of mourning and assigned vice president Mohammad Mokhber, 68, to assume interim duties ahead of elections within 50 days.

Earlier Monday, state TV announced that “the servant of the Iranian nation, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, has achieved the highest level of martyrdom” and broadcast pictures from Raisi’s life as a voice recited the ‘Quran.

The ultraconservative Raisi, 63, had been in office since 2021, during a time that has seen Iran rocked by mass protests, economic crisis deepened by US sanctions, and armed exchanges with arch enemy Israel.

Condolences flooded in from Palestinian militant group Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and from Syria, all members of the so-called Axis of Resistance against Israel and its allies, at a time of high Middle East tensions over the Gaza war.

Khamenei had urged Iranians Sunday, as the search was still ongoing, to “not worry” about the leadership of the Islamic republic, saying “there will be no disruption in the country’s work”.

Died alongside Raisi were Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, known for his fierce anti-Israel sentiment and scepticism of the West, and seven others, including the crew, bodyguards and political and religious officials. Iran’s one-time top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri was appointed as acting foreign minister.

A black flag was hoisted at a major Shia shrine in city of Qom, south of Tehran, as a sign of mourning for Raisi, whom many had considered a favourite to one day succeed the supreme leader.

Iranian authorities first raised the alarm on Sunday afternoon when they lost contact with Raisi’s helicopter as it flew through a fog-shrouded mountain area of the Jolfa region of East Azerbaijan province. Raisi had earlier met Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on their common border to inaugurate a dam project.

On the return trip, only two of the three helicopters in his convoy landed in the city of Tabriz, setting off a massive search and rescue effort, with multiple foreign governments soon offering help.Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi at first spoke of a “hard landing” and urged citizens to ignore hostile foreign media channels and get their information “only from state television”.

Army personnel, Revolutionary Guards and police officers joined the search as Red Crescent teams walked up a hill in the fog and rain and rows of emergency services vehicles waited nearby.Muslim faithful across the nation started to pray for those missing, including in mosques in Raisi’s hometown, the shrine city of Mashhad.

As the sun rose on Monday, rescue crews said they had located the destroyed Bell 212 helicopter, with no survivors among the nine people on board.State television channel IRIB reported that the helicopter had “hit a mountain and disintegrated” on impact.

Iran’s Red Crescent chief Pirhossein Koolivand confirmed that its staff were “transferring the bodies of the martyrs to Tabriz” and that “the search operations have come to an end”.“We were very sad when we learnt the news,” said one Tehran resident, 63-year-old retiree Nabi Karam. “Our president was a very good leader, may God bless him.”

The cabinet vowed that the government’s work will go on “without the slightest disruption” and said that “we assure the loyal nation that the path of service will continue with the tireless spirit of Ayatollah Raisi”.

Foreign countries had been closely following the search at a time of high regional tensions over the Gaza war raging since October 7.Expressions of concern and offers of help had quickly come from countries including China, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, which later offered their condolences.

US President Joe Biden was briefed about the search and the European Union activated its rapid response mapping service to aid in the search effort.In a speech hours before his death, Raisi emphasised Iran’s support for the Palestinians, a centrepiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“We believe that Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world,” said Raisi.Hamas hailed Raisi as an “honourable supporter”, Hezbollah mourned him as “a protector of the resistance movements” and Yemen’s Huthis declared his death a loss “for the entire Islamic world”.

Saudi Arabia, which mended ties with Tehran last year after a long-time rift, offered “condolences to his excellency, the acting head of the executive authority, Mohammad Mokhber, on the death of his excellency Ebrahim Raisi, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and his companions,” said a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Emirati President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said the oil-rich UAE “stands in solidarity with Iran at this difficult time”.

In another statement on social media platform X, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, called the news “painful”, expressing his “sincere condolences to the government and people of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa “expressed his sincere condolences and deep sympathy to Iran’s supreme leader and the brotherly people of the Iranian Republic over this painful incident”, according to a statement carried by the official Bahrain News Agency.

Jassem al-Budaiwi, secretary-general of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), extended his condolences following the “tragic accident”.In a statement released by the Gulf body, Budaiwi reaffirmed “the solidarity of the GCC with the government and people of Iran in these difficult circumstances”.

Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said and Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad Al-Sabah separately sent cables of condolences to Iran’s supreme leader.Palestinian militant group Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Yemen’s Huthi rebels, the Syrian government and Iraq-based armed groups all mourned the death of Raisi and eight others.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expressed solidarity with close ally Tehran, which has backed him during more than a decade of civil war.Assad “affirmed Syria’s solidarity with the Islamic Republic of Iran and with the families of the late deceased and his comrades,” the Syrian presidency said in a statement.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia Muslim religious authority in Iraq, offered his condolences to the Iranian people and government “and especially the grieving families for this painful tragedy”.

Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashed al-Shaabi, also expressed their sympathies, adding that Raisi had “always declared that Iraq and Iran are one people that cannot be separated”.

Afghanistan’s Taliban government expressed regret on Monday over the deaths of Iran’s president and foreign minister in a helicopter crash.“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and all Afghans are deeply saddened and affected by this tragic event,” said Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund in a statement.

Members of the UN Security Council on Monday observed a minute of silence in memory of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his entourage who were killed in a helicopter crash.