Creating new perspectives since 2009

Was the Iranian president's plane crash planned?

May 28, 2024 at 2:22 pm

Iranians attend the funeral of late president Ebrahim Raisi in the city of Mashhad, Iran on 23 May 2024 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

Plane crashes involving heads of states are always linked to conspiracies and claims that they were planned in order to effect regime change or other major political upheavals. Bad weather, mechanical malfunctions and the like are often discounted. Everyone likes, and so believes, conspiracy theories, whether from within the country in question or orchestrated by foreign agents, with the latter being favoured.

At least 15 presidents have been killed when their aircraft either crashed or were shot down since the 1950s. In 1966, the aircraft carrying Iraqi President Abdel Salam Arif crashed in mysterious circumstances, for example. He was with a number of ministers and others when the plane came down between Qurna and Basra. Everyone on board was killed.

Ecuadorian President Jaime Roldos Aguilera was killed in a plane crash in 1981, while Mozambican President Samora Machel, was killed along with several of his ministers on their return from an international conference in October 1986.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami was also killed in a military aircraft crash in 1987. Samir Geagea, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, was convicted of organising the assassination and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life in prison before he was released following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon, in a massive truck bomb and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005.

Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was killed on 17 August, 1988, near Bahawalpur on a flight that also included an elite group of senior Pakistani army officers, as well as the US ambassador to Pakistan and the head of the US mission in the country. One theory is that explosives were hidden in mango crates on board the aircraft carrying the Pakistani leader. A spy for Israeli and Indian intelligence, Akram Awan, claimed that he planted nerve gas that was used in Zia ul-Haq’s assassination.

Was he, it has been asked, so important, or seen as such a threat that international powers were prepared to sacrifice senior US officials in order to remove the Pakistani president?

When Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski’s aircraft crashed in February 2004, he was killed along with all those with him. A number of prominent Polish politicians, including President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, were killed when their plane crashed on 10 April, 2010.

READ: US, European powers divided over confronting Iran at IAEA, diplomats say

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was in an aircraft when it had to make an emergency landing in the Libyan desert in 1992. Arafat survived the crash landing, but three people were killed.

I mention these examples in light of the helicopter crash in which Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Amir Hossein Abdollahian, as well as a number of other politicians and bodyguards were killed. They were returning to Tehran after a visit to East Azerbaijan Province for the inauguration of Qiz Qalasi dam, which was built in cooperation with Azerbaijan.

It is ironic that the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, was the last person to meet Raisi. Both countries are accused of having oppressive regimes. Both have a long record of being criticised for abuses of democracy and human rights, and for imposing restrictions on opposition groups and violating media freedoms.

There was an intentional media blackout by the Iranian state regarding the fate of President Raisi and his entourage, with an absence of transparency from the first moment. This is a recurring feature of the Iranian regime, wherein ambiguity and secret arrangements are preferred over disclosure and publicity until the arrangements are made for the transfer of power. They bought time with the optimistic claim that the rescue teams received a signal from the mobile phone of one of the helicopter’s passengers, which suggested that the passengers were alive, and had just lost contact. It later became clear that the helicopter had plunged into a mountainous area and that all the passengers were killed instantly on impact, with no chance of calling for help.

No official statement has been made accusing any external party of orchestrating the crash.

However, some Iranian officials hold the US responsible because Iran can’t import the spare parts needed to maintain American-built aircraft due to sanctions imposed by Washington. Raisi’s helicopter was US-made in 1973 for the former Shah of Iran, meaning it was both old and well used.

Six days before the fatal crash, the Financial Times published a lengthy investigation in which it confirmed that Ebrahim Raisi was the top candidate to succeed Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei upon the death of the latter, and that the second candidate was Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

Did Iranian intelligence agents and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, neither of which had much time for Raisi’s foreign policies and his complacency in Syria and Iraq, have a role in his death? Was he, in fact, assassinated?

Some radical analysts who support Iran and the resistance in general believe that the crash was orchestrated by Israel. Their belief is based on the fact that the Israeli spy agency Mossad has recruited many agents in Azerbaijan and Iran itself, making it easier for the Zionist state to carry out assassinations. Many Iranian military personnel, resistance leaders in Lebanon, and senior officials of the Palestinian resistance in Beirut and southern Lebanon have been killed over the years. Moreover, such analysts suspect that Raisi’s death benefited both the US and Israel, as it diverted Iran’s attention from what is happening in Gaza, where Tehran is said to be the main supporter of the resistance movements in the Palestinian enclave.

We may never know exactly what happened, of course, and President Ebrahim Raisi’s death will remain open to multiple interpretations. What is certain, though, is that important individuals and institutions, including foreign governments, benefited from his death. Conspiracy theories will, therefore, continue to spread.

READ: Iran to hold early presidential elections on 28 June

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.