Iran launched a massive search and rescue operation in a fog-shrouded mountainous area after President Ebrahim Raisi’s helicopter disappeared on Sunday in what state media described as an “accident”.

Contradictory information was circulating about the intense search for the helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi, which was continuing in north-west Iran on Sunday evening. As a reminder, the aircraft had suffered an “accident” earlier in the day, according to officials and official media.

While Iranian media initially announced the discovery of the aircraft’s carcass, the Iranian Red Crescent quickly denied the news, claiming that the search was continuing.

The prospect of finding the 63-year-old president, who is due to be elected in 2021, alive was diminishing by mid-evening, as there was no further information on the fate of the helicopter, which disappeared in the early afternoon.

The search was made very difficult by “unfavorable weather conditions”, Interior Minister Ahmed Vahidi told state television, referring to a “hard landing” of the aircraft without giving details.

President Raissi, 63, was on board the aircraft along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the provincial governor and the region’s main imam, according to Irna.

“Thick fog”

The aircraft was part of a convoy of three helicopters carrying the presidential delegation, two of which landed safely in Tabriz, the major city in the northwest, from where Mr. Raissi was due to reach Tehran.

In the early evening, Iranian state television broadcast images of worshippers praying for the president’s health in several mosques, including one in the holy city of Mashhad (north-east).

It also showed images of several members of the Iranian Red Crescent Society walking through thick fog in the search area before nightfall.

“More than 20 fully-equipped rescue teams, including drones and rescue dogs”, had “been sent to the scene”, according to Irna.

Khamenei calls for “not worrying”

The vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, left Tehran in the late afternoon for Tabriz in the company of several ministers, according to the government spokesman. He would take over as president in the event of Mr. Raissi’s death, pending the holding of a presidential election within 50 days.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians “not to worry” about the country as the search continued on Sunday for President Ebrahim Raissi’s helicopter, which crashed in northwest Iran.

“The Iranian people should not worry, there will be no disruption” to the country, the leader said, saying he “hopes God will bring the president and his companions back into the arms of the nation”. “Everyone pray for the health of these servants”, he added in a speech to families of Revolutionary Guard members.

International reactions

Still uncertain several hours after the helicopter’s disappearance, developments in the situation were being closely monitored internationally, particularly in the United States, a country which does not maintain diplomatic relations with Iran.

“We are closely following reports of a possible hard landing of a helicopter carrying the Iranian president and foreign minister,” said a diplomatic spokesman in Washington.

For its part, Saudi Arabia expressed “great concern” on Sunday after Iranian state media reported that a helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi had disappeared, and offered to assist in the response.

“We affirm that the Kingdom stands by the Islamic Republic of Iran in these difficult circumstances and is ready to provide any assistance Iranian agencies require,” the foreign ministry of the Gulf kingdom, Iran’s long-time rival, said in a statement.

Several neighboring countries have offered to help Teheran find the missing. These include Armenia, Iraq, Qatar and Turkey.

For its part, the European Union has announced that it is activating its mapping service to find the helicopter.

With the President of Azerbaijan

The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, also offered his help. Earlier in the day, Mr. Raissi had visited the province of Eastern Azerbaijan, where he and Mr. Aliev inaugurated a dam on the border between the two countries.

At a joint press conference, he once again expressed his support for the Palestinians in the war between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip. “We believe that Palestine is the first issue of the Muslim world, and we are convinced that the peoples of Iran and Azerbaijan still support the people of Palestine and Gaza and hate the Zionist regime,” he declared.

Iran launched an unprecedented attack against Israel on April 13, with 350 drones and missiles, most of which were intercepted with the help of the USA and several other allied countries.

Mr. Raissi, who holds the title of Ayatollah, has been President of the Islamic Republic for almost three years.

Mr. Raissi is on the U.S. blacklist of Iranian officials sanctioned by Washington for “complicity in serious human rights violations”, charges dismissed as null and void by the Tehran authorities.

Aged 60, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was appointed head of Iranian diplomacy by President Raissi in July 2021.

A staunch supporter of pro-Iran groups in the Middle East, this diplomat was close to the powerful General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force killed in Iraq in 2020 by an American strike.

With AFP