Ebrahim Raisi’s death likely to impact Iran’s political dynamics, not foreign policy

NEW DELHI: The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is expected to have significant implications for the country’s internal political dynamics though it isn’t likely to impact Tehran’s foreign policy for the region, people familiar with the matter said on Monday.

People walk near a banner with a picture of the late Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi on a street in Tehran, Iran on May 20 (via REUTERS/WANA)

Raisi, foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several other officials were killed in a helicopter crash in Iran’s mountainous northwest while travelling from the country’s border with Azerbaijan on Sunday. The development created a vacuum in Iran’s top leadership at a time of heightened tensions with Israel.

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Since becoming president in 2021, Raisi pushed for stronger ties with India, especially the development of Chabahar Port and New Delhi’s inclusion in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged Raisi’s contribution to strengthening the India-Iran relationship in a message on X.

Also Read: Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric who brought Iran closer to Russia, China

However, the death of both Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian is not expected to affect Iran’s foreign policy for the region, including relations with India, the people cited above said on condition of anonymity. Iran is expected to maintain continuity in its overall approach towards the region and the countries it perceives as prominent players, such as India and Pakistan, the people said.

Since Raisi’s election, Amir-Abdollahian emerged as the main interlocutor for India. He met his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar several times and travelled to India in June 2022. Amir-Abdollahian scrapped a subsequent visit to India in March 2023 to attend the Raisina Dialogue after the inclusion of footage of protests by Iranian women in a promotional video for the event.

“Amir-Abdollahian was an energetic interlocutor for India but like Raisi, was not a prominent decision-maker,” one of the people cited above said, referring to the pre-eminent role played by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) in shaping Iran’s foreign policy, especially for the region.

Deepika Saraswat, associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), said Raisi’s death is also unlikely to have a fallout on the handling of Iran-Israel tensions as the president doesn’t devise policies and such matters are handled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council.

Raisi’s death, however, is expected to have a much greater impact on Iran’s internal political dynamics, since negotiations on issues such as leadership are handled by a collegial but extremely opaque system, the people said.

“The death of an individual leader in this system is less significant than in other countries but it will certainly lead to changes in internal dynamics,” a second person said, referring to widespread speculation that Raisi was seen as a possible successor to Khamenei.

Under Iran’s Constitution, the first vice president takes over in case of the death, dismissal, resignation or illness of the president. A council, comprising the first vice president, the speaker of Parliament and the head of the judicial branch, must then organise an election in 50 days.

Khamenei is now expected to approve first vice president Mohammad Mokhber’s appointment. Even before Raisi’s death was officially confirmed, Khamenei said on Sunday that “there will be no disruption in the country’s affairs”.

“With moderates and reformists already out of the system, there is likely to be more infighting between different factions of hardliners. The circle has narrowed but it has not united,” Saraswat said.

The task of choosing Raisi’s successor is not going to be easy, she said. “Raisi was handpicked and groomed by the supreme leader, and was an establishment candidate who worked closely with the supreme leader and the security establishment, especially the IRGC,” she added.

The people noted that another test for the Iranian system would be deciding the leadership of the Assembly of Experts, an influential body of clerics empowered to choose the supreme leader. Before Raisi’s death, the Assembly of Experts was scheduled to meet on Tuesday to choose a new chair.

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