‘A true friend’: Russia, China offer condolences after death of Iran’s President

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Russian leader Vladimir Putin, alongside top Chinese officials, offered condolences after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash in a mountainous region of northern Iran, along with his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

The president, a hardliner tipped as a potential successor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was returning from a trip marking the opening of a dam in Azerbaijan when his helicopter came down, according to Iranian media reports. State media said the incident, which killed several other regime officials, was the result of a “rough landing” in thick fog.

In a letter addressed to Khamenei, Putin called Raisi’s death “a huge tragedy” for the Iranian people.

“As a true friend to Russia’s, he made an invaluable personal contribution to the establishing of neighborly relations between our two countries and made great efforts to elevate them to the level of strategic partnership,” Putin’s letter, published on the Kremlin’s website, reads.

“I had the luck of meeting Ebrahim Raisi more than once, and I will forever remember him as the most wonderful person,” the letter wrote.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference that Raisi’s death was “a great loss to the Iranian people, and the Chinese people have lost a good friend.”

The Iranian regime is a strategic ally of both Moscow and Beijing. Last month, EU officials accused the country of standing ready to supply Russia with ballistic missiles in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. China has been a major buyer of Iranian oil, supporting the country’s proxy war with Israel, according to Western intelligence officials. 

Tensions are already high in the region after Iran last month exchanged direct missile fire with Israel, which had bombed the Iranian embassy in Syria. The Iranian retaliation, which wounded a seven-year-old Bedouin girl, was the country’s first direct attack on Israeli soil. 

Iran has been a staunch supporter of Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization in the U.K., EU and U.S., as it has clashed with Israeli forces in the besieged Gaza enclave. Iran has also armed and funded Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, both of which continue to mount airborne attacks on Israel. 

Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also weighed in on Raisi’s death. Modi said he was “deeply shocked and saddened by this tragic demise.”

A search and rescue team reported there were “no signs of life” after finding the burned out wreckage of Raisi’s helicopter early Monday. State media outlet Mehr declared Raisi had been “martyred.”

Iranian Vice President Mohammad Mokhber will become interim president. Mokhber has fifty days to arrange elections for Raisi’s successor, Khamenei said Monday. 

Early on Monday, Tehran announced five days of national mourning.

Eva Hartog contributed reporting.