The View From India | Iran after Ebrahim Raisi

Updated - May 21, 2024 03:12 pm IST

Published - May 21, 2024 12:23 pm IST

Ebrahim Raisi

Ebrahim Raisi | Photo Credit:

(This article is part of the View From India newsletter curated by The Hindu’s foreign affairs experts. To get the newsletter in your inbox every Monday, subscribe here.)

In Iran’s semi representative theocratic system, the elected President is a subordinate of the Supreme Leader, who is appointed by a group of senior clerics. The Supreme Leader has the final say over critical matters of national security and foreign and domestic policies. The President’s job is to run day to day governance and manage the economy.

In the past, however, Presidents had tried to use the limited autonomy they have to push their agenda. When Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, was the President (1997 to 2005), the clerical establishment and Mr. Khatami’s reformist agenda had often clashed, though the writ of the former always reigned supreme. When Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, was the President (2013-2021), Iran pursued nuclear talks with the West, despite murmurs of opposition from the conservative sections. Between Mr. Khatami and Mr. Rouhani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad served as President for eight years. Mr. Ahmadinejad was a hardliner but not a cleric, and he had a fall-out with different power centres in Iran during his second term. In 2021, when Ebrahim Raisi became Iran’s eighth President, the establishment saw a hardline cleric, who had the confidence of the Supreme Leader, in the country’s highest elected office. But unfortunately, Raisi’s first term was cut short by a helicopter crash on Sunday in which the Iranian President, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and seven others were killed.

Raisi was different from his three immediate predecessors. Unlike Mr. Khatami, he had no plan to reform Iran’s tightly held Islamic system. On the contrary, he cracked down on civil protests and tightened the grip of the clergy on the state and society. Unlike Mr. Ahmadinejad, an engineer and teacher hailing from a working class background who came up the hard way in Iran’s politics, Raisi had been a pillar of revolutionary Iran’s justice system. He was the chief of Iran’s judiciary and a member of the country’s clerical elite. And he never strayed from the line drawn by his bosses. Unlike Mr. Rouhani, Raisi was not in a hurry to engage in talks with the West to revive the nuclear deal. His government held indirect talks with the Biden administration but such talks collapsed in 2022 after there was no consensus on how to revive the deal, which was sabotaged by Washington in 2018.

Raisi was the man Iran’s conservatives were waiting for: a President with a popular mandate, a conservative with ideological convictions and a cleric with the backing of the Supreme Leader. Many saw Raisi as a potential successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 85-year-old Supreme Leader who has several health issues.

President Raisi’s death in the helicopter crash in northwestern Iran throws new challenges to these succession plans. Now Iran has to find not just a new President who can run the government at a time when the country is grappling with economic and social tensions at home and geopolitical challenges abroad, but also a potential successor, a cleric, to the Supreme Leader. Since the revolution of 1979, Iran saw only two supreme leaders — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Khamenei, who assumed the position in 1989 after Khomeini’s death. Iran doesn’t announce the successor of the Supreme Leader in advance. Ayatollah Raisi was seen as a frontrunner and now, new names, including Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader, and Alireza Arafi, an influential white-turbaned cleric who heads Friday prayers at the Qom shia seminary, are being added to the list.

After Raisi’s death was confirmed, Iran swiftly moved to put in place an orderly transition. According to the Iranian Constitution, if the President is incapacitated, the First Vice President should take over as acting President with the approval of the Supreme Leader. Mr. Khamenei on Monday appointed First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as acting President. The country will have next Presidential elections on June 28. Mr. Khamenei says the death of Raisi would not affect governance or stability. It is unlikely to alter Iran’s foreign policy direction either. “But the loss of one of the most experienced and ideologically disciplined defenders of the revolution and a transition amid domestic and regional uncertainties, is an added challenge to the Islamic Republic,” writes The Hindu in this editorial.

India mourns

India has enjoyed good ties with Iran ever since the Islamic revolution. It was just a week ago India signed a long-term agreement to further develop and operate the Chabahar port, which my colleague Suhasini Haidar calls India’s gateway to Central Asia, defying pressure from the West. India expressed its shock and grief over the death of President Raisi. “My heartfelt condolences to his family and the people of Iran. India stands with Iran in this time of sorrow,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on X immediately after the news of the demise was confirmed. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also expressed condolences to the Iranian people and said, “I Recall my many meetings with them, most recently in January 2024.” India also announced one day’s ‘state mourning’ on Tuesday. Earlier, in April, Eraj Elahi, the Iranian ambassador to India had told the media here that President Raisi was expected to visit later this year to enhance bilateral ties. Both Mr. Raisi and Mr. Abdollahian had interacted with Mr. Modi and Mr. Jaishankar on multiple occasions. Mr. Jaishankar attended the swearing-in ceremony of President Raisi on August 5, 2021, report Kallol Bhattacherjee and Suhasini Haidar.

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