DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and others have been found dead at the site of a helicopter crash Monday after an hourslong search through a foggy, mountainous region of the country’s northwest, state media reported. Raisi was 63.

The crash comes as the Middle East remains unsettled by the Israel-Hamas war, during which Raisi under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched an unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel just last month. Under Raisi, Iran enriched uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels, further escalating tensions with the West as Tehran also supplied bomb-carrying drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine and armed militia groups across the region.

Meanwhile, Iran has faced years of mass protests against its Shiite theocracy over its ailing economy and women’s rights – making the moment that much more sensitive for Tehran and the future of the country.

State TV gave no immediate cause for the crash in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province. Among the dead was Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, 60.

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.

Medical and rescue teams from Iranian town of Verzegan arrive at the accident site after one of the helicopters in Iranian President Raisi's convoy crashed following the inauguration of a dam on the border along with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Jabrayil district of Azerbaijan on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Azin Haghighi / Moj News Agency/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Medical and rescue teams from Iranian town of Verzegan arrive at the accident site after one of the helicopters in Iranian President Raisi’s convoy crashed following the inauguration of a dam on the border along with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Jabrayil district of Azerbaijan on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Azin Haghighi / Moj News Agency/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Early Monday morning, Turkish authorities released what they described as drone footage showing what appeared to be a fire in the wilderness that they “suspected to be wreckage of helicopter.” The coordinates listed in the footage put the fire some 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the Azerbaijan-Iranian border on the side of a steep mountain.

Footage released by the IRNA early Monday showed what the agency described as the crash site, across a steep valley in a green mountain range. Soldiers speaking in the local Azeri language said: “There it is, we found it.”

Khamenei himself urged the public to pray Sunday night.

“We hope that God the Almighty returns the dear president and his colleagues in full health to the arms of the nation,” Khamenei said, drawing an “amen” from the worshipers he was addressing.

However, the supreme leader also stressed the business of Iran’s government would continue no matter what. Under the Iranian constitution, Iran’s vice first president takes over if the president dies with Khamenei’s assent, and a new presidential election would be called within 50 days. First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber already had begun receiving calls from officials and foreign governments in Raisi’s absence, state media reported.

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

Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi acknowledged that “we are experiencing difficult and complicated conditions” in the search.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi acknowledged that “we are experiencing difficult and complicated conditions” in the search.

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

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

Meanwhile, mass protests in the country have raged for years. The most recent involved the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been earlier detained over allegedly not wearing a hijab, or headscarf, to the liking of authorities. The monthslong security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and saw over 22,000 detained.

In March, a United Nations investigative panel found that Iran was responsible for the “physical violence” that led to Amini’s death.

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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