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No survivors found after helicopter carrying Iran’s president crashes, state media says

Originally Published: 19 MAY 24 22:26 ET

Updated: 20 MAY 24 00:17 ET

By Negar Mahmoodi, Artemis Moshtaghian, Tamara Qiblawi, Sophie Tanno and Helen Regan, CNN

(CNN) — Iran’s president and foreign minister are presumed dead after state media outlets reported that “no survivors” were found at the crash site of a helicopter carrying the two men and seven others.

The helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian ran into trouble amid heavy fog while returning from a trip to the Iran-Azerbaijan border, Iranian officials said Sunday.

No official announcement of their deaths has yet been made.

Drone footage of the wreckage taken by the Red Crescent and carried on state media FARS News Agency showed the crash site on a steep, wooded hillside in northern Iran, with little remaining of the helicopter beyond a blue and white tail.

Pir-Hossein Kolivand, head of the Iranian Red Crescent, said there are no signs of life of those traveling on board the helicopter, according to Iranian state news IRIB.

Reuters news agency also cited an unnamed Iranian official as saying all passengers are feared dead.

The crash prompted an hours-long search-and-rescue operation with assistance from the European Union and Turkey among others, but emergency crews were hampered by the fog and plummeting temperatures.

The potential loss of Raisi — a hardliner who was widely seen as Iran’s next Supreme Leader — is expected to sow further uncertainty in a country already buckling under significant economic and political strain, with tensions with nearby Israel at a dangerous high.

The incident comes at a sensitive time domestically for Tehran and seven months into Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza that has sent tensions soaring throughout the Middle East and brought a decades long shadow war between Israel and Iran out into the open.

Last month Iran launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel — its first ever direct attack on the country — in response to a deadly apparent Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus.

Iran’s hardline leadership has faced significant challenges in recent years, convulsed by youth-led demonstrations against clerical rule and grim economic conditions. Iranian authorities have launched a widening crackdown on dissent since nationwide protests broke out over the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s notorious morality police.

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. Among those onboard were three crew members, the governor of Eastern Azerbaijan province, an imam Raisi’s head of security chief and a bodyguard, according to IRGC-run media outlet Sepah.

A president groomed for real power

Raisi came to Iran’s presidency from the judiciary, where he drew attention from both the Iranian clerical elite and Western critics for his hardline approach to dissent and human rights in the country.

In 2019 — the same year that Raisi became Iran’s chief justice — he was sanctioned by the US, citing his participation in the 1988 “death commission” as a prosecutor and a United Nations report on the judicial execution of at least nine children between 2018 and 2019.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has accused him of crimes against humanity for being part of the committee that oversaw the execution of up to 5,000 political prisoners in 1988. Raisi has never commented on these allegations.

For Iran’s ruling establishment, though, Raisi 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.

In 2021, he was elected to the presidency in a contest heavily engineered by the Islamic Republic’s political elite so that he would run virtually unchallenged. Raisi’s inauguration following the resounding defeat of his predecessor, former President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, was seen to signal the start of a new harder-line era in Iran.

Many activists accused Iran’s clerical establishment of “selecting” rather than electing the next president in a poll designed to further entrench the power of the country’s hardline clerical rulers, despite the public’s calls for reforms. Overall voter turnout was 48.8% – the lowest since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

He took the presidency as negotiations with the United States over how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal stalled, and as the country was in the throes of an economic crisis and under mounting pressure to reform.

As President, 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. Many believe he has been groomed to be elevated to the Supreme Leadership.

A year into his presidency, he brutally quashed a youth-led uprising over repressive laws, such as the compulsory hijab, and continued to stamp out dissent in its aftermath. As recently as this month, a dissident rapper was handed a death sentence in releation to the 2022 protests.

A United Nations report found that Iran’s “repression of peaceful protests” and “institutional discrimination against women and girls” has led to human rights violations, some of which amount to “crimes against humanity.”

In foreign policy, Raisi notably presided over the strongest Iran-backed show of force against Israel in nearly two decades. Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October, Tehran-supported armed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen have continuously attacked Israel and its allies in the region.

He also spurned negotiations with the US over Iran’s nuclear program, dealing a devastating blow to stalled talks with the Biden administration that aimed to revive the Obama-era deal of sanctions relief in exchange for curbs to the country’s uranium enrichment program. That deal was upended by Trump in 2018, when the former president unleashed waves of sanctions on Iran despite Tehran ostensibly sticking to its end of the bargain.

Shortly after, the country announced its intention to enrich uranium up to 60% purity, pushing the country closer to reaching the 90% enrichment level that is considered weapons-grade. In March 2023, uranium particles enriched to near bomb-grade levels were found at an Iranian nuclear facility, according to the UN’s nuclear watchdog, as the US warned that Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb was accelerating.

As he turned his back to Washington, Raisi sought to end his country’s economic isolation by looking elsewhere, strengthening Tehran’s relationship with China, and repairing diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Gulf Arab powerhouses which were long considered Tehran’s arch-foes.

Iran’s economy has begun to rebound over the past two years, according to the World Bank. But the nation remains shackled by sanctions, its social movements brutally repressed, and its political structure now shaken by Raisi’s sudden death.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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