Helicopter carrying Iranian President Raisi suffers a ‘hard landing’ near Azerbaijan; Russia, EU offer help in search operations

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the Governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and other officials and bodyguards were travelling with the Mr. Raisi

Updated - May 20, 2024 07:37 am IST

Published - May 19, 2024 06:27 pm IST - Dubai

People follow the news of a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, on a TV in a shop in Tehran, Iran, May 19, 2024.

People follow the news of a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, on a TV in a shop in Tehran, Iran, May 19, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

A helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and other officials apparently crashed in the mountainous northwest reaches of Iran on May 19, sparking a massive rescue operation in a fog-shrouded forest as the public was urged to pray.

The likely crash came as Iran under Mr. Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched an unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel last month and has enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Also Read: Who is Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s president whose helicopter suffered a ‘hard landing’ in foggy weather?

Iran has also faced years of mass protests against its Shiite theocracy over an ailing economy and women’s rights — making the moment that much more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country as the Israel-Hamas war inflames the wider Middle East.

A helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi takes off, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border, May 19, 2024.

A helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi takes off, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border, May 19, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Mr. Raisi was traveling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province. State TV said what it called a “hard landing” happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with the nation of Azerbaijan, some 600 kilometers (375 miles) northwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran. Later, state TV put it farther east near the village of Uzi, but details remained contradictory.

Traveling with Mr. Raisi were Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and other officials and bodyguards, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. One local government official used the word “crash,” but others referred to either a “hard landing” or an “incident.”

Neither IRNA nor state TV offered any information on Mr. Raisi’s condition. However, hard-liners urged the public to pray for him.

Mr. 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 Shia 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.

The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged Iranians to “not worry” about the leadership of the Islamic republic, saying “there will be no disruption in the country’s work”. “We hope that Almighty God will bring our dear president and his companions back in full health into the arms of the nation,” he said in a nationally televised address as Muslim faithful prayed for Mr. Raisi’s safe return.

In Tehran, a group of men kneeling on the side of the street clasped strands of prayer beads and watched a video of Raisi praying, some of them visibly weeping. “If anything happens to him, we’ll be heartbroken,” said one of the men, Mehdi Seyedi. ”May the prayers work and may he return to the arms of the nation safe and sound.”

Search operations underway

Rescue vehicles are seen following a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, in Varzaqan , East Azerbaijan Province, Iran, May 19, 2024.

Rescue vehicles are seen following a crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, in Varzaqan , East Azerbaijan Province, Iran, May 19, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Iran’s cabinet held an emergency meeting led by Vice President Mohammad Mokhber after the incident, IRNA reported. Mr. Raisi’s convoy had included three helicopters, and the other two had “reached their destination safely”, said the Tasnim news agency. More than 60 rescue teams using search dogs and drones were sent to the mountainous protected forest area of Dizmar near the town of Varzaghan, the IRNA news agency reported.

Army, Revolutionary Guard and police officers joined the search, authorities said, as TV stations showed pictures of Red Crescent teams walking up a hill in the mist, and rows of waiting emergency response vehicles.

In comments aired on state TV, Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said: “The esteemed president and company were on their way back aboard some helicopters and one of the helicopters was forced to make a hard landing due to the bad weather and fog.” “Various rescue teams are on their way to the region but because of the poor weather and fogginess it might take time for them to reach the helicopter.”

IRNA called the area a “forest” and the region is also known to be mountainous. State TV aired images of SUVs racing through a wooded area and said they were hampered by poor weather conditions, including heavy rain and wind. Rescuers could be seen walking in the fog and mist.

A rescue helicopter tried to reach the area where authorities believe Mr. Raisi’s helicopter was, but it couldn’t land due to heavy mist, emergency services spokesman Babak Yektaparast told IRNA. Late in the evening, Turkey’s defense ministry announced that it had sent an unmanned arial vehicle and was preparing to send a helicopter with night vision capabilities to join the search-and-rescue efforts.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei‘s protégé

Mr. Raisi, 63, is a hard-liner who formerly led the country’s judiciary. He is viewed as a protégé of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and some analysts have suggested he could replace the 85-year-old leader after his death or resignation from the role.

Mr. Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Raisi is 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.

Under Mr. Raisi, Iran now enriches uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampers international inspections. Iran has armed Russia in its war on Ukraine, as well as launched a massive drone-and-missile attack on Israel amid its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It also has continued arming proxy groups in the Mideast, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The U.S. State Department said it was “closely following reports of a possible hard landing of a helicopter in Iran carrying the Iranian president and foreign minister.” It added: “We have no further comment at this time.”

EU, Russia, Iraq offer help

Russia is sending a team of rescuers to Iran to help search for the helicopter carrying Mr. Raisi, Moscow announced on May 20. “At the request of the Iranian side, rescuers from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations will assist in the search and rescue operation,” the Ministry wrote in a statement published on Telegram. The team, which “consists of 47 specialists with the necessary gear and equipment, all-terrain vehicles, as well as a BO-105 helicopter,” will head to the northwest city of Tabriz, it said.

Earlier, the country’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, said, “Russia is ready to extend all necessary help in the search for the missing helicopter and the investigation of the reasons for the incident.” She said, “We sincerely hope that they are alive and that nothing is threatening their lives and health.”

Iraq on May 19 offered neighbouring Iran help in search and rescue efforts after Iranian state media said President Ebrahim Raisi’s helicopter was involved in “an accident” in poor weather conditions. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani “instructed the interior ministry, the Iraqi Red Crescent and other relevant authorities to offer the Islamic Republic of Iran the available resources to aid in the search for the Iranian president’s aircraft,” government spokesman Bassem al-Awadi said in a statement.

The European Union has said it had activated its “rapid response mapping service” to help Iran search for a helicopter carrying Mr. Raisi. “Upon Iranian request for assistance we are activating the EU’s CopernicusEMS rapid response mapping service in view of the helicopter accident reportedly carrying the President of Iran and its foreign minister” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic said on X.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has offered to help with the response. “We affirm that the Kingdom stands by the sisterly Islamic Republic of Iran in these difficult circumstances and its readiness to provide any assistance that the Iranian agencies need,” the Foreign Ministry of the Gulf kingdom, a longtime rival of Iran, said in a statement.

In a statement on X, Qatar expressed its “deep concern” over the helicopter carrying Iran’s president and foreign minister and offered “to provide all forms of support in the search”. The Gulf state’s foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari gave “Qatar’s wishes for the safety of the president, the foreign minister, and their companions”, the statement added.

Shiite-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia have long been on opposing sides of regional conflicts, including in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In 2016 bilateral ties were severed after attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran during protests over Riyadh’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. However, in March 2023 the two nations announced a surprise rapprochement brokered by China, and they have been in relatively frequent contact in recent months as they worked to contain the war triggered in Gaza by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani expressed gratitude for “governments and international organizations for their sympathy and offer of help in the search and rescue operations.”

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