More than a week after the death of Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, new and conflicting details about the incident continue to surface, leaving the circumstances of the helicopter crash shrouded in uncertainty.

On Friday, the first formal report by the General Staff of the Armed Forces on the helicopter incident was published. Although this report ruled out the possibility of the chopper being shot down, it did not state the main reason for the crash and mentioned that “more time is needed for a definitive conclusion”.

Adding to the perplexity, it has come to light that the President's bodyguard was notably absent from the ill-fated helicopter.

Raisi’s chief of staff’s account vs preliminary official report

An interview with Gholamhossein Esmaeili, Raisi's chief of staff and a member of the president's entourage, has further contributed to the confusion.

In the early hours of May 19th, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi embarked on a journey, accompanied by his entourage, from Tehran to Tabriz.

Iran President's Entourage Route, May 19th, 2024

Timeline of events on May 19th according to Iran President chief of staff:

6:00 AM (Tehran Time): Iran's president and his entourage flew from Tehran to Tabriz, located in the East Azerbaijan province of northwestern Iran, by plane.

7:15/30 AM: From Tabriz, three helicopters were utilized for a project visit in Agh Band.

9:00 AM: The second leg of the journey proceeded from Agh Band to Khoda Afarin, near the Giz Galasi Dam, with further plans for travel.

1:00 PM: The final leg was supposed to be from Khoda Afarin towards Tabriz, but the helicopter crash prevented the completion of the journey.

1:35 PM: En route to Tabriz, the helicopters attempted to avoid a “cloud Layer” by increasing their altitude. While the first and third helicopters successfully navigated the clouds, the president’s helicopter, flying in the middle, disappeared. It was later discovered to have crashed, resulting in the deaths of all its passengers. Iran President chief of staff stated: "We emerged from the cloud layer very normally, even without any turbulence."

Esmaeili's account highlights two crucial points. The first point is his statement that the "weather was favorable, with no issues”.

Noor News, an agency close to the Supreme National Security Council, also reported that all necessary safety measures had been implemented to ensure the president's helicopter flight was secure.

The short six-item report by the General Staff of the Armed Forces also did not mention weather conditions at the time of the incident and stated on item six of the report that "no suspicious issues were observed in the communications between the control tower and the flight crew." This raises questions about the suddenness of the incident.

Satellite View of Northeast Iran at the Time of the Crash (Zoom Earth)

Signals from the chopper post-crash

Esmaeili's account also sheds light on his communication with cleric Mohammad Ali Al-Hashem, a passenger aboard the helicopter, post-crash.

Esmaeili explains that he attempted to contact the pilot, but Al-Hashem answered the phone instead. He reveals that he queried Al-Hashem about the incident, to which he responded that “he did not understand what has happened”.

In the interview, he stated that he was in contact with Al-Hashem for three to four hours after the incident. However, the alleged surviving passenger was found dead when rescue teams arrived, although his body was not burned like that of Raisi and others.

While “most likely the transponder system was turned off or that the helicopter did not have one,” as stated by the Turkish transport minister, the questions is if there was a mobile signal for up to three hours after the crash. In that case, why pinpointing the coordinates of the helicopter wreckage took 15 hours?

The mystery of the absent bodyguard

The latest images of Ebrahim Raisi show his bodyguard was almost always at his side. However, the released list of casualties revealed that he was not onboard.

Given that the Bell 212 helicopter can accommodate 15 passengers but only had 8 on board, the question arises: why did Ebrahim Raisi’s personal bodyguard continue the journey in a different helicopter?

The helicopter carrying Iran's president

Javad Mehrabi, the bodyguard of Iran's President, continued the journey in one of the other two helicopters accompanying the president.

General Esmaeil Kosari, a former IRGC commander and current member of parliament, dismissed claims about the status of the president's guards, stating, "Some media outlets are fabricating irrelevant statements.

The second guard was in a separate helicopter as there was no necessity for multiple guards in one aircraft."

However, HamMihan Newspaper in Iran reported suggestions that some passengers may have been reassigned to another helicopter at the last minute before the flight. A video report published May 26 by state broadcaster IRIB shows him getting off the President’s chopper during a landing.

Javad Mehrabi, Iran's President's Bodyguard, Escaping the President's Helicopter Crash, Continuing the Journey in a Separate Helicopter

What might have caused the helicopter crash?

Pinpointing the exact cause of the May 19 fatal crash is challenging. Such investigations are long and complex processes. But when it comes to the Iranian government, any such report should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The Armed Forces Staff is the same organization that, after 73 hours of denials, finally admitted that "Ukrainian Airlines flight PS752... was hit [with missiles] due to human error and unintentionally..."

The flight was struck by two missiles from the Revolutionary Guards killing all 176 people on board. Iranian officials attributed the plane crash to technical failure for 73 hours. Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, and Britain are seeking damages for the families of the people on board who were killed and believe that Iran did not conduct a fair, transparent, and impartial investigation and prosecution.

Also, the Ontario Court of Justice ruled in 2023 that the shooting down of Flight PS752 by the Iranian military constitutes "terrorist activity".

Potential causes might include:

1- Weather condition: Some in Iran attribute the crash to adverse weather conditions. A member of the helicopter search and rescue team stated in an exclusive interview with Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the IRGC, that the "weather factor" can be considered the cause of the crash. However, this contrasts sharply with the account given by the President's chief of staff, who was part of the president's entourage and reported that the "weather was favorable, with no issues."

2- Technical Failure: Catastrophic mechanical failures, like the rear rotor mechanism malfunction that occurred in the King Power Stadium crash, are not unprecedented and could have contributed to the Iran helicopter crash.

3- Human error: Human error remains a constant specter in aviation mishaps. Errors in altitude reading, for example, could have played a role in this incident.

4- Explosive Sabotage: In the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is stated that “the pilot established contact with the pilot of another helicopter approximately one and a half minutes before the helicopter crash”. This again reinforces the hypothesis of a sudden and unprecedented incident.

Farzin Nadimi, a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute, did not rule out the possibility of sabotage in the helicopter crash. He stressed the importance of conducting a thorough investigation and suggested that various types of "small bombs" could have been employed, including remote-controlled or altitude-triggered explosives. Examining the wreckage could yield crucial evidence.

The mysterious death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who attempted an unsuccessful coup against Russia’s Vladimir Putin and perished in a crash involving his private jet, underscores the impact of such incidents on both leaders and adversaries.

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