Iranian Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian dies in helicopter crash aged 60

The diplomat perished in the helicopter crash that also killed President Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian
Hossein Amirabdollahian was appointed Iranian foreign minister by President Ebrahim Raisi in 2021 [File: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has died at the age of 60 in a helicopter crash alongside President Ebrahim Raisi.

The crash occurred on Sunday, but it took search teams several hours to find the site of the wreckage in Iran’s mountainous East Azerbaijan province and confirm that the occupants of the aircraft had all died.

Amirabdollahian had been attending the inauguration of two dams near the border with Azerbaijan, where Raisi met its president, Ilham Aliyev.

The top diplomat had been appointed to his position by Raisi after the latter won the 2021 presidential election. The appointment was representative of a wider shift in Iran’s politics as the focus moved from negotiations with the West to renewed attention on regional relations. Amirabdollahian had previously focused on relations with the Arab world and Africa.

Like many within Raisi’s cabinet, Amirabdollahian came to office after the unilateral United States withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), between Iran and world powers. As a result, increased Western sanctions bit deeper into the country’s economy.

Most recently, Amirabdollahian had risen to international prominence during an intense diplomatic and military standoff with Israel after the latter’s April strike upon Tehran’s consular building in Damascus and Iran’s response – a well-telegraphed but direct attack on Israel.

Rise in the diplomatic arena

Amirabdollahian, a career diplomat, was born in Damghan, east of Tehran, in 1964.

He lost his father at a young age and was raised by his mother and older brother.

He set his sights on a career in the diplomatic corps from an early age, earning his bachelor’s degree in diplomatic relations in 1991 from the School of International Relations, which is run by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He then attended the University of Tehran, where he graduated with a master’s degree in international relations in 1996 and completed his doctorate in the same subject in 2010.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, right, died with his foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, in a helicopter crash on May 19, 2024 [File: Ramzi Boudina/Reuters]

Amirabdollahian’s ascent in the Foreign Ministry was swift.

In the late 1990s, he was posted to Iran’s embassy in Baghdad before being selected in 2007 as part of a three-man delegation to attend talks with the US held in Iraq before being appointed ambassador to Bahrain in the same year, a position he held until 2010.

Amirabdollahian went on to take various roles in the Foreign Ministry. In 2011, he was appointed deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs under Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was instrumental in negotiating the JCPOA.

But Amirabdollahian was removed from the position in 2016 and became the special assistant to Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, but retained contact with his former diplomatic colleagues.

Amirabdollahian was an enthusiastic proponent of the “axis of resistance”, the network of states and groups opposed to Israel, and was proud of the friendship he formed with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in a US drone strike in Baghdad in 2020.

Speaking in June of the same year, Amirabdollahian praised Soleimani’s “strategic genius” for preventing Syria’s and Iraq’s “disintegration”.

Amirabdollahian also spoke warmly of his relations with other members of the axis, maintaining a long working relationship with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

“It’s interesting that even when you talk with him at three o’clock in the morning,” he later remarked, “he is so refreshed as if it were six o’clock in the morning. He’s done his morning prayers, he’s had his breakfast and has the right amount of energy to talk.”

Time as foreign minister

Amirabdollahian was a close ally of Raisi, supporting him as mass protests swept the country after the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. The young woman had been detained by Iran’s morality police after being accused of not following the dress code for women.

Known for his mistrust of the West as well as his fundamental opposition to Israel, Amirabdollahian nevertheless proved instrumental in reaching out to regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, with whom he helped end the seven-year break in diplomatic ties after each had backed opposing sides in various regional conflicts.

Amirabdollahian was also responsible for overseeing indirect talks with the US aimed at offsetting the crippling sanctions imposed upon the country.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and Iran's ambassador in Damascus Hossein Akbari, stand together near Iran's consulate in Damascus that was targeted in a suspected Israeli attack on April 1, in Damascus, Syria April 8
From left, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and Iranian Ambassador to Syria Hossein Akbari stand together near Iran’s consulate in Damascus after it was hit in an Israeli attack on April 1, 2024 [Firas Makdesi/Reuters]

However, any actions towards that end were swiftly eclipsed in October last year as Israel began its war in Gaza after the attacks on southern Israel by Iran-backed Hamas.

While Iran said it had no advance knowledge of the Hamas attacks, Amirabdollahian met with Hamas leaders in Iran, Qatar and Lebanon.

Amirabdollahian then assumed a hawkish posture after an Israeli air strike destroyed the Iranian consulate in Damascus.

He helped organise Iran’s response, a direct missile and drone attack on Israel that was slow to arrive and warned about in advance. The attack was a message with Amirabdollahian telling the US network CNN that if Israel embarked on more “adventurism”, Iran’s “next response [would be] immediate and at a maximum level”.

Amirabdollahian is survived by his wife and two children.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies