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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi killed in helicopter crash

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner and potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was killed in a helicopter crash near the Azerbaijan border, officials and state media confirmed on Monday.

The charred wreckage of the helicopter, which crashed on Sunday carrying Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, was discovered early Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.

“President Raisi, the foreign minister, and all passengers in the helicopter were killed in the crash,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Vice President Mohsen Mansouri and state television later confirmed Raisi’s death on social media.

State TV reported images showing the helicopter crashing into a mountain peak, although no official cause of the crash was given. IRNA, the state news agency, said Raisi was flying in a U.S.-made Bell 212 helicopter.

Raisi, 63, elected president in 2021, had tightened morality laws, overseen a crackdown on anti-government protests, and pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sought to reassure Iranians, stating there would be no disruption to state affairs.

Prayers and Searches

Rescue teams battled blizzards and rough terrain to reach the wreckage early Monday.

“With the discovery of the crash site, no signs of life have been detected among the helicopter’s passengers,” said Pirhossein Kolivand, head of Iran’s Red Crescent, on state TV.

The national broadcaster paused regular programming to show prayers being held for Raisi across the country.

Footage showed rescue teams, in bright jackets and head torches, huddled around a GPS device as they searched the mountainside in a blizzard.

Several countries expressed concern and offered assistance. The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden had been briefed on the crash. China expressed deep concern, and the European Union offered emergency satellite mapping technology.

Hardliner and Potential Successor to Khamenei

The crash occurred amid growing dissent in Iran over political, social, and economic crises. Iran faces international pressure over its disputed nuclear program and military ties with Russia during the war in Ukraine.

Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, provoking Israel’s assault on Gaza, conflagrations involving Iran-aligned groups have erupted throughout the Middle East.

In Iran’s dual political system, the clerical establishment and the government share power, but it is Raisi’s 85-year-old mentor, Khamenei, who has decision-making power on major policies.

Many viewed Raisi as a strong contender to succeed Khamenei, who has endorsed Raisi’s policies. Raisi’s election in 2021 brought all branches of power under hardliner control after eight years of pragmatist Hassan Rouhani and a nuclear deal negotiated with global powers.

However, Raisi’s standing may have been undermined by widespread protests against clerical rule and the failure to improve Iran’s economy, hampered by Western sanctions.

Raisi had been at the Azerbaijani border on Sunday to inaugurate the Qiz-Qalasi Dam, a joint project. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who bid a “friendly farewell” to Raisi earlier in the day, offered assistance in the rescue efforts.