77°F
weather icon Clear

Iran President Ebrahim Raisi, supreme leader’s protégé, dies at 63 in helicopter crash

Updated May 19, 2024 - 11:18 pm

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and others were found dead Monday hours after their helicopter crashed in a foggy, mountainous region of the country’s northwest, state media reported. Raisi was 63.

The crash comes as the Middle East remains unsettled by the Israel-Hamas war, during which Raisi under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched an unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel just last month.

Under Raisi, Iran enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels, further escalating tensions with the West as Tehran also supplied bomb-carrying drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine and armed militia groups across the region.

Meanwhile, Iran has faced years of mass protests against its Shiite theocracy over its ailing economy and women’s rights — making the moment that much more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country.

State TV gave no immediate cause for the crash that occurred in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

Among the dead was Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, 60. The helicopter also carried the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, other officials and bodyguards, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

Fire in wilderness

Early Monday morning, Turkish authorities released what they described as drone footage showing what appeared to be a fire in the wilderness that they “suspected to be wreckage of helicopter.” The coordinates listed in the footage put the fire some 12 miles south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border on the side of a steep mountain.

Footage released by the IRNA early Monday showed what the agency described as the crash site, across a steep valley in a green mountain range. Soldiers speaking in the local Azeri language said: “There it is, we found it.”

Khamenei himself had urged the public to pray Sunday night.

“We hope that God the Almighty returns the dear president and his colleagues in full health to the arms of the nation,” Khamenei said, drawing an “amen” from the worshipers he was addressing.

Government will continue

However, the supreme leader also stressed the business of Iran’s government would continue no matter what. Under the Iranian constitution, Iran’s vice first president takes over if the president dies, with Khamenei’s assent, and a new presidential election would be called within 50 days.

First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber already had begun receiving calls from officials and foreign governments in Raisi’s absence, state media reported. An emergency meeting of Iran’s Cabinet was held as state media made the announcement Monday morning.

The Cabinet issued a statement afterward pledging it would follow Raisi’s path and that “with the help of God and the people, there will be no problem with management of the country.”

Raisi a hard-liner who formerly led the country’s judiciary, was viewed as a protégé of Khamenei and some analysts had suggested he could replace the 85-year-old leader after Khamenei’s death or resignation.

With Raisi’s death, the only other person so far suggested has been Mojtaba Khameini, the 55-year-old son to the supreme leader. However, some have raised concerns over the position being taken only for the third time since 1979 to a family member, particularly after the Islamic Revolution overthrew the hereditary Pahlavi monarchy of the shah.

Raisi’s rise

Though Raisi lost his 2017 campaign, he still garnered nearly 16 million votes. Khamenei installed him as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary, long known for its closed-door trials of human rights activists and those with Western ties.

The U.S. Treasury in 2019 sanctioned Raisi “for his administrative oversight over the executions of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and the torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations.”

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 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.

Meanwhile, mass protests in the country have raged for years. The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been earlier detained over allegedly not wearing a hijab, or headscarf, to the liking of authorities.

The monthslong security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and saw over 22,000 detained.

In March, a United Nations investigative panel found that Iran was responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.

Raisi is the second Iranian president to die in office. In 1981, a bomb blast killed President Mohammad Ali Rajai in the chaotic days after the revolution.

Born in Mashhad on Dec. 14, 1960, Raisi was born into a family that traces its lineage to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, marked by the black turban he would later wear. His father died when he was 5. He would go onto the seminary in the Shiite holy city of Qom and later would describe himself as an ayatollah, a high-ranking Shiite cleric.

He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Hezbollah leader warns archenemy Israel against wider war

Lebanon’s Hezbollah has new weapons and intelligence capabilities that could help it target more critical positions deeper inside Israel in case of an all-out war, the terrorist group’s leader warned on Wednesday.

Penn’s interim president orders pro-Palestinian protesters to disband ‘immediately’

The interim president at the University of Pennsylvania issued a warning Friday night to pro-Palestinian protesters on campus that they must “disband their encampment immediately” because of alleged legal and university police violations.

Pro-Palestinian encampment cleared from Cal State LA

Police cleared an entrenched pro-Palestinian encampment at California State University, Los Angeles, just days after demonstrators occupied and trashed a building.

U.S. envoy in Lebanon to try and head off larger war

As Amos Hochstein met with officials in Beirut, Hezbollah launched four projectiles toward Israel on Tuesday afternoon, breaking three days of relative calm.