Sudden death of Raisi helicopter highlights Iran’s outdated aviation

While extremely poor weather conditions were likely the main cause of the helicopter crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Sunday, the advanced age of the helicopter is something that cannot just be overlooked.

The crash of the American-made Bell 212 also killed the governor general of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and the Friday prayer leader of Tabriz, the provincial capital of East Azerbaijan. The president was returning from a trip in which he met with the president of neighboring Azerbaijan to inaugurate a new dam. It is unclear why the helicopter was cleared to fly in foggy conditions and extremely low visibility in a mountainous region.

What is clear is that the Bell 212, while undoubtedly a durable and venerable helicopter that carried the president and these officials, was probably 40 to 50 years old and was acquired by Iran during the last shah that preceded the 1979 revolution. , when Washington and Tehran had close ties. .

(Incidentally, in the 1970s, the last shah had stopped driving around Tehran after two assassination attempts, opting instead to fly over the city by helicopter for security reasons and thus unintentionally increasing his isolation from the Iranian population).

The potentially problematic age of the helicopters carrying the Iranian president on his frequent trips around the country was raised in a leaked 2023 classified letter addressed to First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber. (Mokhber will now serve as interim president until a new presidential election is held in 50 days.) The letter emphasized Iran’s requirement for two Mi-17A2 helicopters from Russia at a reported cost of $32 million, noting the “high frequency” from Raisi’s Helicopter Flights.

Unsurprisingly, Javad Zarif, the late Amir-Abdollahian’s predecessor as foreign minister, sought to shift some of the blame to the United States, lamenting that U.S. sanctions “prevent Iran from acquiring essential aviation spare parts.”

What Zarif, unsurprisingly, did not mention are the repeated occasions on which Iran has commandeered its civilian aircraft to transport weapons to Russia for use against Ukraine and its proxies in numerous Middle Eastern countries. devastated by war.

Under the Shah, the United States supplied Iran with hundreds of modern helicopters, including 205 AH-J International attack helicopters and CH-47C Chinook utility helicopters. But with the fleet’s heyday in the 1970s in the rearview mirror, Tehran cannot rely heavily on its American-made helicopters for much longer.

The 2023 letter to Mokhber about Mi-17 utility was not surprising. Acquiring more Mi-17s from Moscow could allow Iran to retire its older Bell helicopters. Iran’s largest helicopter acquisition since 1979 was a fleet of about 40 Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters from Russia in the early 2000s.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has become less reliable in supplying spare parts and technical support to its customers in a timely manner. Neighboring Iraq, which relied heavily on the Mi-17 to support its soldiers fighting the remnants of the Islamic State in rural and mountainous areas of the country, is struggling to maintain its Russian helicopters. As a result, Baghdad is purchasing Bell helicopters from Washington to replace them.

Iran is acquiring Mi-28 attack helicopters from Russia along with its order for about two dozen Su-35 Flanker aircraft.

Despite signing a 25-year strategic agreement with Iran in 2021, China has not supplied significant military equipment to Tehran since the 1980s, during the bloody Iran-Iraq war that raged during that decade. Beijing has also reportedly been reluctant to help Iran upgrade its air force by providing it with J-10C multirole fighter jets.

The American F-14A Tomcat remains the apple of the Iranian Air Force’s eye to this day, just under half a century since Tehran began receiving them from the United States in 1976. However, the aging fighter fleet American-built Iranian aircraft, along with some of the Russian aircraft it acquired from the Soviet Union around 1990, have suffered repeated technical failures and accidents, largely due to their age, in recent years.

Ironically, a country that previously helped Iran improve its domestic aviation sector by co-developing an Iranian version of the Antonov An-140 turboprop aircraft was Ukraine. Relations between Iran and Ukraine broke down completely after Iran shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner over Tehran in January 2020 and then supported the 2022 invasion of Moscow by supplying thousands of drones that Russia has repeatedly used against Ukrainian cities.

Another telling development during the search for Raisi’s crashed Bell 212, which took hours given the poor visibility and rugged terrain, was that Iran accepted Turkey’s offer to send an advanced Bayraktar Akinci drone to assist in the search efforts and rescue. The Turkish Akinci is equipped with advanced sensors and thermal technology and was therefore ideal for finding the missing helicopter which, according to Turkey’s Transport Minister, had a disconnected or missing transponder.

The Akinci’s leading role in the search is embarrassing for Iran for two reasons. First, the province where Raisi’s helicopter went down is home to the second tactical air base, 10 miles northwest of Tabriz, which houses light search and rescue aircraft. (In addition, the Akinci flew over several sensitive military sites inside Iran during its mission, including a rapid response base.) Second, Iran has boasted in recent years about the popularity of its drones.

In 2022, Raisi boasted that numerous heads of state had told him: “Your industry is more advanced. “It’s different from the rest of the world.”

Despite such claims, Iran’s drone industry cannot hope to replicate neighboring Turkey’s export success, at least under the current regime. And it was striking that it was a Turkish drone that played a prominent role in Sunday night’s search, as opposed to an Iranian one.

Raisi’s sudden and unexpected death is a shocking reminder of how unpopular politics and incredible incompetence (flying in such bad weather conditions in the first place and potentially without a transponder) have virtually doomed the US fleet of military and utility aircraft. Iran, which was once among the best in the world. in the world.