After an accident involving a helicopter with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hussein Amirabdollahian on board, 40 rescue teams are searching for the scene of the accident in the northwest of the country. As Iranian state media reported, the fate of the nine-member crew was initially completely unclear.

According to reports in Iranian media, there was no contact with the president’s team, which fueled great concerns among government supporters. The rescuers continued to search on foot in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province even after dark – in the rain in a mountainous region.

The 63-year-old Raisi was returning from a meeting with the President of neighboring Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, along with Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian. Together they inaugurated a dam. It was intended to be a sign of cooperation after the relationship between the neighboring countries was recently tense. The helicopter then crashed in East Azerbaijan province. There were nine people on board, including the governor and the Friday preacher from the provincial capital Tabris.

According to Interior Minister Ahmad Wahidi, rescue workers did not have easy access to the scene of the accident due to the weather and the nature of the terrain. There is therefore no precise information about the situation on site. A reporter on state television stood in thick fog during a live broadcast from the province. As darkness fell, the rescuers on site feared that the search would become more difficult. Sniffer dogs and drones were also used in the search. As Iranian media reported, the scene of the accident is near Jolfa – more than 600 kilometers from the capital Tehran, close to the border with Azerbaijan.

Big concerns among Raisi’s supporters

In Raisi’s hometown of Mashhad in the northeast of the country, dozens of believers gathered at the central pilgrimage shrine, state radio reported. Followers also flocked to mosques in other parts of the country, such as the religious stronghold of Qom. There was great concern that something might have happened to Raisi and Foreign Minister Hussein Amirabdollahian. On social media, however, there were also many Iranians who were happy about the accident. Iran’s government warned against unconfirmed information.

Iran’s air force is considered to be very outdated, and its modernization is making little progress in the face of strict international sanctions. Many planes and helicopters date back to the time before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when the country had close relations with the USA. Serious accidents and crashes occur again and again.

The European Union is monitoring the situation, wrote Council President Charles Michel on Platform X. “We are closely following the reports that the helicopter with the Iranian president and the foreign minister on board had to land unexpectedly.”

Government is criticized for repressive policies

Raisi was sworn in as the new president of Iran in August 2021. The arch-conservative cleric thus officially became the successor to Hassan Ruhani, who was not allowed to run again after two terms in office. As the leading candidate of the political hardliners and the preferred candidate and protégé of the religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi won the presidential election in June with almost 62 percent of the vote. His government has been criticized for years for its repressive policies and the economic crisis.

Iran has been in the headlines again and again recently, and recently there was even a threat of a regional war with its arch-enemy Israel. During Raisi’s term in office, the Islamic Republic deepened its economic and military cooperation with China and Russia, and relations with the West cooled, among other things because of the dispute over the domestic nuclear program. The West also accused Iran of massive human rights violations. Nevertheless, just a few days ago there were again reports of new, indirect talks in the Gulf state of Oman with the USA.

Raisi is considered very influential

Born in Mashhad in 1960, Raisi is considered very influential within the Islamic system. He maintains a close relationship with Khamenei. Raisi worked in the judiciary for over three decades and was appointed head of the judiciary in 2019. In his previous role as public prosecutor, he is said to have been responsible for numerous arrests and executions of political dissidents in 1988, which earned him the title “Butcher of Tehran” from opponents. According to the constitution, Raisi is head of government, Khamenei is more powerful as head of state and has the final say in all strategic matters.

Experts had meanwhile also treated Raisi as a possible successor to Khamenei, who turned 85 in April. In terms of domestic policy – even if criticism from the younger generation is now increasingly directed against the entire system of the Islamic Republic – Raisi was constantly under pressure. Most recently, the government pushed forward its controversial course in pursuing compulsory headscarves.

If Raisi and Amirabdollahian were killed in the accident, the Islamic Republic could be plunged into a domestic and foreign policy crisis. Iran’s foreign minister in particular has been more in the public eye since the beginning of the Gaza war and has been a guest of allies on numerous trips. It will also be difficult for the state leadership to quickly replace the head of government due to a lack of alternatives.