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Iran Declares Mourning Period As President, Foreign Minister Killed In Helicopter Crash

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, on May 8, 2022. (SalamPix/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared five days of mourning after the bodies of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian were found at the site of a helicopter crash in northwest Iran.

Iranian state television on May 20 said the helicopter had crashed due to poor weather conditions. It was unclear how many people were on board the helicopter when it went down.

Khamenei also named First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as interim president. Iranian law stipulates that if the president dies, power is transferred to the first vice president.

A council consisting of the speaker of parliament, the head of the judiciary, and the first vice president must arrange for a new president to be elected within 50 days.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Baqeri Kani was appointed acting foreign minister, Iranian state media reported.

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency said the governor of East Azerbaijan Province and other unspecified officials and bodyguards were aboard the ill-fated aircraft.

Foreign governments on May 20 issued expressions of condolence and solidarity. Lebanon announced three days of mourning to honor Raisi. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian were both “true, reliable friends of our country.”

Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, issued a statement of condolence and thanked Raisi for his “tireless efforts in solidarity” with the Palestinian people.

European Council President Charles Michel issued a statement of “sincere condolences,” adding “our thoughts go to the families.”

Search-and-rescue teams, aided by several foreign governments, had been frantically searching for the helicopter after it went down in bad weather conditions in a mountainous area of the country late on May 19.

Some activists criticized the EU for assisting in the rescue operation of a leader who has been accused of overseeing major human rights abuses.

But EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic defended the move on May 20, saying that by providing satellite mapping services to Tehran, Brussels was acting “upon request for facilitating a search and rescue operation” and was not “an act of political support to any regime or establishment.”

“It is simply an expression of the most basic humanity,” he added in a post on X.

Raisi’s helicopter was on its way to the city of Tabriz when it went down near the city of Jolfa in what state television said was a “hard landing,” but several news reports quoted government sources as saying the helicopter crashed as it crossed a mountainous and forested area.

The bodies from the helicopter that crashed were severely burned, but not beyond recognition, according to the head of Iran’s Crisis Management Organization, Mohammad Hassan Nami. He said DNA tests were not needed to confirm the identities of those killed in the crash.

He added that Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Al-e Hashem, who served as Khamenei’s representative in East Azerbaijan Province, survived the crash initially and remained alive for about an hour before he died.

Nami said that, during that time, Al-e Hashem had made contact with Raisi’s chief of staff by phone. He did not reveal any further details.

The Iranian government said the helicopter was one of three flying in a convoy, and the other two reportedly landed safely in Tabriz.

The ultraconservative Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian had been in Azerbaijan earlier on May 19 to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who said on X that Azerbaijan was “profoundly troubled” by the news that Raisi’s helicopter had gone down.

Raisi was elected president in 2021 and has since tightened many restrictions on Iranians through enforcement of morality laws and a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests spurred by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly violating the code on head scarves.

He has also pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers while also allowing the country to markedly increase its uranium enrichment program.