Iranian president's helicopter in 'hard landing', state media reports

Iranian president's helicopter in 'hard landing', state media reports

A helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi suffered a “hard landing” on Sunday, Iranian state media reported, without elaborating. Some officials began urging the public to pray for Raisi and the others on board as rescue crews sped through a misty, rural forest where his helicopter was believed to be.

The probable crash comes as Iran launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel just last month and has enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels. Meanwhile, Iran has faced years of mass protests against its Shiite theocracy over an ailing economy and women’s rights — making the moment that much more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country as the Israel-Hamas war inflames the wider Middle East.

Raisi was travelling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province. State TV said the incident happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with the nation of Azerbaijan, some 600 kilometres northwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran. Later, state TV put it farther east, near the village of Uzi, but details remained contradictory.

After Iran requested help from the EU in its rescue effort, the bloc said it was providing mapping of the area. However, no other help was offered.

Travelling with Raisi were Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the governor of Iran's East Azerbaijan province and other officials and bodyguards, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. 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.

Neither IRNA nor state TV offered any information on Raisi’s condition in the hours afterwards. However, hard-liners urged the public to pray for him. State TV later aired images of the faithful praying at Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, as well as in Qom and other locations across the country.

“The esteemed president and company were on their way back aboard some helicopters and one of the helicopters was forced to make a hard landing due to the bad weather and fog," Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said in comments aired on state TV. "Various rescue teams are on their way to the region but because of the poor weather and fogginess it might take time for them to reach the helicopter.”

He added: "The region is a bit (rugged) and it’s difficult to make contact. We are waiting for rescue teams to reach the landing site and give us more information.”

Rescuers were attempting to reach the site, state TV said, but had been hampered by poor weather conditions. Heavy rain and fog were reported, along with some wind. IRNA called the area a “forest”, and the region is known to be mountainous as well. State TV aired images of SUVs racing through a wooded area.

A rescue helicopter tried to reach the area where authorities believe Raisi's helicopter was, but it couldn't land due to the heavy mist, emergency services spokesman Babak Yektaparast told IRNA.

Raisi had been on the border with 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. Its military air fleet also largely dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Raisi, 63, is a hard-liner who formerly led the country’s judiciary. He is viewed as a protégé of Khamenei, and some analysts have suggested that he could replace the 85-year-old leader after his death or resignation from the role.