Helicopter carrying Iranian President Raisi crashes, prompting massive search operation, local media reports

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Rescuers are searching in the dark for a helicopter that crashed while carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in northern Iran on Sunday, according to Iranian officials. Raisi’s condition and that of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who was also on board, remain unknown as overnight temperatures drop in the mountainous area.

The aircraft came down in the early afternoon in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, sparking a massive search effort, including military drones and dozens of rescue teams, state media reported.

Officials have said they were able to make contact with some of the passengers aboard the helicopter. But despite hours of searching, emergency crews have not been able to reach the crash site amid reported fog and extreme cold.

A regional commander for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced late on Sunday night that they had detected the exact location of the crash after receiving a signal from the helicopter and the mobile phone of one of the crew, IRNA reported.

“Military forces are heading to the location and hope to have some good news,” the commander reportedly said.

Raisi’s official Instagram account and state television have urged Iranians to pray for the president and his entourage.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei echoed in the call in a video statement, saying, “Everyone should pray for the health of this group of servants. … People of Iran, do not worry. There will be no disruption in the work of the country.”

Poor weather complicates search for helicopter

The accident occurred as Raisi and Amir Abdollahian were returning from a ceremony for an opening of a dam on Iran’s border with Azerbaijan, IRNA reported. Two other helicopters in the same convoy of dignitaries arrived at their destinations safely, officials said.

Iranian authorities have identified a 2-kilometer radius for the crash site and believe the accident was “not severe” after speaking with two people who were traveling on the downed helicopter, Iranian Vice President for Executive Affairs Mohsen Mansouri told Iranian semi-official FARS news.

“Three helicopters were on this route, but the helicopter carrying the President lost contact with the other two. They began searching and established contact with one of the helicopter’s occupants and the flight crew, indicating the incident was not severe. The Red Crescent, FRAJA, Army, and IRGC rescue teams have arrived and divided tasks,” he said.

The crash site is believed to be somewhere in the Dizmar Forest area between the villages of Ozi and Pir Davood, according to IRNA, which reported that residents in the northern Varzeqan region said they heard noises from the area.

Poor weather and low visibility are complicating rescue efforts in the rural area. Iranian Minister of Health, Bahram Eynollahi, has warned that the crash site is very foggy, making it difficult for rescuers to search. “We have set up treatment facilities. We are now in the area and all rescue forces are busy searching,” Eynollahi said on state TV Sunday. “We have deployed all medical facilities, including emergency medicine, surgery and ambulance.”

A deployment of helicopters in the area has already failed due to the weather, Iranian military officials said.

“The helicopters of the 6th combat base of Tabriz Air Force arrived in the Varzeqan area according to the order to carry out relief operations,” the Commander of Iran’s 6th Air Force Base said. “These helicopters, along with the rescue team, were sent to the helicopter accident area of the president’s convoy from the early hours. Unfortunately, the operation failed due to unfavorable weather conditions.”

Iraq and Azerbaijan have offered assistance to Iran in the ongoing search operation, and the European Union is activating its satellite mapping service.

“Upon Iranian request for assistance we are activating the EU’s Copernicus EMS rapid response satellite mapping service in view of to the helicopter accident reportedly carrying the President of Iran and its foreign minister,” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said in a post on X on Sunday.

Turkey will also send a night-vision search and rescue helicopter, 32 mountaineer search and rescue personnel, and six vehicles, the Turkish Ministry of Interior Disaster and Emergency Management said on Sunday.

US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the incident, according to the White House.

Who is President Raisi?

Raisi’s powers as President are dwarfed by those of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the final arbiter of domestic and foreign affairs in the Islamic Republic.

But Raisi is widely seen as a figure in which the Iranian clerical establishment has heavily invested – and even as a potential successor to the 85-year-old Khamenei.

Raisi’s election in 2021 was heavily engineered by the Islamic Republic’s political elite so that he would run virtually uncontested. He seemed to be made in the image of the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s ideals, a guarantor of its continuation even as many chafed under its ultraconservative rules. A year into his tenure, he brutally quashed a youth-led uprising over repressive laws, such as the compulsory hijab, and continued to stamp out dissent in its aftermath.

Unlike his predecessor, the moderate former President Hassan Rouhani, there has been no daylight between Raisi and Khamenei. This left no doubt in many Iranians’ minds that he has been groomed to be elevated to the Supreme Leadership.

Any disruption to this vision of succession could sow further chaos in a country already buckling under significant economic and political strain.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct that the reported incident took place in East Azerbaijan Province of Iran.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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