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Fate of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi — ‘Butcher of Tehran’ — unknown after helicopter crash

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s fate was unknown late Sunday hours after his helicopter crashed in a remote area of the country.

A brutal hardliner known as the “Butcher of Tehran,” Raisi oversaw mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s and the deadly 2022 crackdown on young Iranians protesting against mandatory hijabs and other religious rule in the Islamic republic.

Dozens of rescue teams desperately trying to reach the crash site have been slowed by rugged terrain and poor visibility, Iranian state media reported. 

As the rescue effort stretched into nighttime, heavy fog and darkness enveloped the search area, which state media reports can only be reached by foot.

Rescuers are looking for a helicopter involved in “an incident” while carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images

With Raisi’s fate uncertain by late Sunday night local time, news has come in a trickle of reports from various sources giving wildly varying accounts.

Israel’s Channel 12 reported that “diplomatic sources in the West estimate that Raisi did not survive the accident,” a claim that could not be independently verified by The Post.

Meanwhile, Iranian Vice President for Executive Affairs Mohsen Mansouri told the semi-official FARS news agency that officials have been in contact with two people who were on the same helicopter as Raisi and that the crash was “not severe.”

There have also been scattered reports of celebratory fireworks being launched in Tehran and elsewhere around Iran, purportedly by Raisi’s detractors.

Hours after news of the “hard landing” broke, state TV networks ceased their regular broadcasts and started showing footage of massive prayer gatherings breaking out around the country.

Footage of the rescue effort showed Red Crescent members scouring the mountainous terrain on foot with little visibility due to heavy fog. 

Iran’s official news agency INRA said Raisi, 63, along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and local state officials, were traveling in a convoy of choppers when the aircraft went down near the city of Jolfa on Iran’s border with Azerbaijan, about 375 miles northwest of Tehran.

One local government official used the word “crash” to describe the incident, but he acknowledged to an Iranian newspaper that he had yet to reach the site himself.

Fog and nightfall set in as rescue crews scrambled to make contact with the downed chopper. via REUTERS
The search has been hampered by rugged terrain and low visibility. Telegram/Mehr News

Neither IRNA nor state TV offered any information on Raisi’s condition. The other two helicopters in the convoy landed safely at their destinations, according to a report on Iranian state TV.

Questions have also already begun to percolate as to what it would mean for Iran’s government if the president does not survive the crash.

Under Iranian law, the country’s First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber would step into the role as president for a custodial period of 50 days, at which point an election would be held to choose Raisi’s successor.

But the real succession drama would center around who would step up to be the Islamic republic’s next Supreme Leader, a role currently held by 85-year-old Imam Sayyid Ali Khamenei.

A helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi takes off, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border, May 19, 2024. via REUTERS
The helicopter was returning from Raisi’s visit with the president of Azerbaijan. AP

Most pundits believe the likely competition to succeed Ali Khamenei comes down to a two-man race between Khamenei’s son Mojtaba and Raisi, Gabriel Noronha, a former US State Department advisor on Iran noted on X.

He pointed out that should no one step up to challenge the current Supreme Leader’s son, he would be all but assured to get the position, effectively making Iran a “hereditary monarchy – just in radical Islamic clothing.”

Ali Khamenei’s official X account posted a message urging prayers for Raisi and attempting to reassure Iranians.“The nation doesn’t need to be worried or anxious as the administration of the country will not be disrupted at all,” he wrote.

Raisi had been in Azerbaijan early Sunday to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. The dam is the third one that the two nations built on the Aras River.

The visit came despite chilly relations between the two nations, including over a gun attack on Azerbaijan’s Embassy in Tehran in 2023, and Azerbaijan’s diplomatic relations with Israel, which Iran’s Shiite theocracy views as its main enemy in the region.

Iran flies a variety of helicopters in the country, but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them. Its military air fleet also largely dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Rescue teams work with a canine unit following the helicopter crash. via REUTERS

Raisi is viewed as a protégé of Khamenei and was sanctioned by the US 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 — earning him the moniker “the Butcher of Tehran.”

Raisi won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, a vote that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. 

Since taking power, he’s ordered more stringent enforcement of morality laws, overseen a bloody crackdown against anti-government protests, and stepped up the country’s nuclear efforts.

In 2022, to quell mass street protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly not wearing a hijab, Raisi unleashed a brutal security crackdown that killed more than 500 people and saw more than 22,000 detained

He’s also prioritized stepping up the country’s nuclear efforts.

Under Raisi, Iran now enriches uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampers international inspections.

The visit came despite chilly relations between the two nations, including over a gun attack on Azerbaijan’s Embassy in Tehran in 2023. Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images

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.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, who met with Raisi just hours before the crash, said on X that he was “profoundly troubled” by the news, and offered to provide any assistance needed from the “neighbor, friend, and brotherly country.”

The U.S. State Department said it was “closely following reports of a possible hard landing of a helicopter in Iran carrying the Iranian president and foreign minister,” but said it had no further comment.

With Post wires