Iran President Ebrahim Raisi with Azerbaijan counterpart Ilham Aliyev at the Qiz Qalasi Dam on the Azerbaijani side of the border, hours before Raisi’s helicopter crashed in northwest Iran, May 19, 2024

EA on France 24: How Significant is Death of Iran’s President Raisi?

UPDATE, MAY 20: Iran authorities have confirmed the deaths of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and other officials in a helicopter crash in the northeast of the country.

State TV said the bodies were found early Monday after an overnight search by 65 rescue units in the mountains of East Azerbaijan Province.

No immediate cause was given for the crash in dense fog, at an altitude of 2500 meters (8200 feet), on Sunday.

The deaths of East Azarbaijan Governor Malek Rahmati; the Friday Prayers leader of Tabriz, Mohammad Ali Al-e Hashemand; and the head of Raisi’s security team were also confirmed.

The head of Iran’s Red Crescent, Pir Hossein Kolivand, said, “With the discovery of the crash site, no signs of life have been detected among the helicopter’s passengers.”

ORIGINAL ENTRY, MAY 19: Iran President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian are among the likely fatalities in a helicopter crash in the northwest of the country.

The two men — along with East Azarbaijan Governor Malek Rahmati; the Friday Prayers leader of Tabriz, Mohammad Ali Al-e Hashemand; and senior officials — were returning from a visit to Azerbaijan. The US-made Bell helicopter from the 1970s crashed in dense fog in a mountainous area in Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province.

The other two helicopters in the convoy made it to their destination, and State outlets such as the English-language Press TV — prompted by officials — initially said that “several people” had made contacts from Raisi’s, indicating that the President and others had survived. On Sunday night, Vice President for Executive Affairs Mohsen Mansouri was still maintaining that contact was established “several times” with a passenger and member of the flight crew shortly after the crash: “It appears that the incident was not severe.”

But the regime struggled to maintain that story as 65 rescue units were sent to the area. Beset by the fog, aircraft and drones were unable to operate, and first responders walked through the mountains before calling off the search for the night.

State TV falsely reported that the helicopter was found. But the Iran Red Crescent immediately denied the claim, and the Commander of Iran’s 6th Air Force Base said, “Unfortunately, the operation failed due to unfavorable weather conditions.”

Turkey is sending night vision search and rescue helicopter, 32 personnel, and six vehicles. The European Union’s Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, posted:

The Supreme Leader said in a televised statement, “We hope that the Almighty God returns the respected and esteemed President and his companions to the embrace of the nation.”

But he tipped off a lack of that hope, as he urged all Iranians to pray for the health and safety of Raisi and the other passengers: “The Iranian nation should not be worried or anxious, there will be no disruption to the work of the country.”

Ayatollah Khamenei spoke after an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. State broadcaster IRIB switched to non-stop prayers and mournful music, and news agency IRNA put a black banner as the avatar on its Telegram channel.

Despite the Supreme Leader’s attempt to calm reactions, discussions immediately circulated about the future of the Presidency and the regime.

Despite being widely regarded as a weak President and figurehead for Khamenei’s decisions, Raisi has been portrayed as a possible successor to the 85-year-old Supreme Leader. Another candidate is Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, but that risks public backlash over nepotism — particularly since the elder Khamenei gained the post in 1989 without being recognized as a marja, the highest rank of the Iranian clergy.

Raisi, a former Iran Chief Justice and head of a religious charity, was installed as President in a managed election in 2021. He occupied the post as the Supreme Leader and hardliners consolidated their authority across the Iranian system, suppressing nationwide protests over the economy, women’s rights, and political reforms.

Amir-Abdollahian, Deputy Foreign Minister from 2010 to 2016, took over the Ministry at the outset of Raisi’s presidency. A staunch conservative, he has promoted Iran’s engagement — amid ongoing international sanctions — with Russia, China and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. That effort has been rocked, however, by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and by the regional tensions over Israel’s war in Gaza.

Raisi would be succeeded by 1st Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, a relative lightweight in Iranian politics, with elections to be arranged within 50 days.

Amir-Abdollahian’s successor is likely to be Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani, who led Iran’s nuclear negotiating team before talks broke down in 2022.