04.06.2024 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Difficult times await Iran

death of Iranian President

On May 19, 2024, a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian and other Iranian officials crashed in the mountainous North-West of Iran, killing all on board. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared a five-day period of mourning in the country for President Ibrahim Raisi, who died in the helicopter crash.

Khamenei has already appointed First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as acting president, and he has a maximum period of 50 days to hold elections after Raisi’s death, Iranian official news agency IRNA reported. The Cabinet of Ministers appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Bagheri Kani as acting Minister of Foreign Affairs.

State media reported that First Vice President Mokhber had already begun receiving calls from officials and foreign governments in Raisi’s absence. An emergency meeting of the Iranian Cabinet of Ministers following the state media’s announcement of the tragic death. Next, the Cabinet of Ministers issued a statement promising to follow in the footsteps of Raisi and that “with the help of God and the people, there will be no problems with governing the country.” A hardliner and the previous head of the country’s judicial system, Raisi was considered Khamenei’s protégé and some analysts suggested that he could replace the 85-year-old leader after the death or resignation of the ayatollah.

An endless series of tragedies

“The tragic loss of President Ebrahim Raisi and his Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has presented the nation with new challenges that resuscitated hope among adversaries about the possibility of Iran plunging into a period of instability,” the influential Tehran Times newspaper noted. “But the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to be impervious to instability thanks to its historical roots and past experiences.”

Although the loss of President Raisi is grave and difficult to come to terms with, the Islamic Republic has experienced much more troublesome periods throughout its turbulent history. At the end of July 1981, when Tehran was battling Iraqi aggression on its territory, the first president of the Islamic Republic, Abolhassan Banisadr, fled the country after he was impeached. This was the first major political vacuum that the Islamic Republic faced in the early years of its existence.

Shortly after the impeachment of Banisadr, presidential elections were held in the Islamic Republic, resulting in the victory of Mohammed Ali Rajai winning more than 12.7 million votes. A few days later, on August 30, 1981, President Rajai, along with his Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar, were killed in a powerful explosion that shook the Prime Minister’s office, leading to a seemingly irreversible political vacuum and traumatising the nation in a time of war.

A few months earlier, on June 28, 1981, the office of the Islamic Republic Party was bombed, killing the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, along with 72 other party members. Among the victims were 27 members of parliament, 4 ministers, 12 deputy ministers and a large number of officials of the Islamic Revolution.

Exactly one day before the June explosion, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, who was already a prominent politician at that time, survived an assassination attempt, as a result of which his right hand was crippled for life.

It can be said that the Islamic Republic is no stranger to political vacuums and the sudden absence of political leaders. The country has experienced several incidents involving the death or dismissal of prominent figures of its political establishment. Its constitution regulates the smooth process of solving important problems that may arise, such as the death of President Raisi. This time, the Islamic Republic is better equipped legally and is politically ready to cope with any political scenarios due to the strong support base it enjoys among its population and abroad.

Will there be changes in domestic and foreign policy?

In the short term, the main consequences will be domestic, not international, as state power in Iran is subordinate to the supreme leader, not the president. Nevertheless, Raisi was a reliable partner and ideologically aligned with the revolutionary clerical establishment. In fact, many expected him to run for supreme leader after the departure of the incumbent president, 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Raisi’s death increases the likelihood of a renewed struggle for the position of president. This does not guarantee the furthering of the man who was considered Raisi’s main rival for this position, Khamenei’s son Mojtaba. There is deep resistance to the succession of power in Iran, and the broader clerical establishment still prides itself on electing the most capable politicians rather than following the principle of nepotism. The most likely result is a quiet competition within the state apparatus, in which members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), military and intelligence officers compete for advantage and privileges in power, as well as a possible reduction in the influence of clerical leadership in the long term. This trend has been observed in Iran for more than a decade, as dissatisfaction with the rule of the clergy is growing among the young and other segments of the population.

It is possible, though unlikely, that the public will take advantage of this sombre moment and try to rebel against the country’s leadership. Many Iranian experts consider it unlikely, in part because many Iranians believe that they are still suffering from the effects of the 1979 revolution, which began as a large-scale public movement that was then hijacked by charismatic religious figures. Although many Iranians look down on the Arab world, the Arab Spring also does not encourage popular revolution. The basic scenario is that there will be no significant changes in the near future, and it is almost equally likely that a political figure will appear in the government promising reforms, improved governance and economic recovery. It is unclear what real changes this will lead to. The probability of a radical coup is below 10 percent, even according to Western media.

The fundamentals of Iranian foreign policy, including the Axis of Resistance, multilateral friendly ties with China and Russia and the expansion of regional dialogue, will remain unchanged. The latter is likely to suffer to some extent, since Amir Abdollahian was a skilled diplomat, spoke Arabic, spent years building relations between Iran’s neighbours and earned the greatest degree of trust. In the face of uncertainty, it will take some time for the new Iranian minister to restore these ties.

It should be recalled that Iran’s foreign policy, including vis-à-vis the nuclear issue, is determined by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council. Raisi and Abdollahian had different visions of how to pursue tough policies. This became evident since Raisi was nominated for president in 2021 with considerable support from Khamenei and the Guardian Council, an influential decision-making body. During this period, Iran, whilst maintaining its position on its nuclear program, moved closer to the red lines of the West, increasing levels of nuclear enrichment and expanding the public debate about whether a decades-long religious decree (or fatwa) against nuclear weapons is still appropriate.

On the regional front, Iran has also become a much more open actor through the Axis of Resistance, its network of regional proxies, which has brought direct conflict much closer, especially with Israel. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, has been involved in a low-level border conflict with Israel since the Gaza war began in October. Last month, Iran directly attacked Israel with missiles for the first time.

“I, personally, don’t anticipate a change or shift in direction of Iran’s foreign policy,” Dr Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, told The Guardian. “Foreign policy is made in the Supreme National Security Council, where Raisi had some degree of influence. I expect the same approach to continue; maintaining bilateral ties across the region; continuing to support and build the capacity of the Axis of Resistance and developing economic opportunities with Russia and China, while playing divisive politics with Europe and the US.” Vakil also considers Tehran to adhere to a similar approach on the nuclear issue, maintaining ambiguity when working on capacity building, which can then be used in the international negotiation process.

However, on the regional front, the loss of Abdollahian has practical significance for Iranian diplomacy and influence. Abdollahian, considered close to the IRGC, whose own interest in aggressive foreign policy was shaped by Khamenei, was a key propaganda figure among the Gulf countries and helped establish relations with key figures such as Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.

The course of Iran’s foreign policy will continue with strength and power

The statement by Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, made immediately after the fatal accident, also indicates a desire for continuity in the current policy. “Without a doubt, the course of Iranian foreign policy will continue with strength and power under the leadership of the supreme leader,” the statement said. “With their active presence in the foreign policy arenas, [Raisi and Abdollahian] did everything they could to realise the national interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

All of this makes any question of a new direction for Tehran’s foreign policy a long-term issue that ultimately depends on Khamenei’s eventual successor, and not after the death of Raisi, who was seen as a future potential leader. In any case, Iran is currently facing very difficult times.


Viktor MIKHIN, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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