Death of a President: On Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi

Change at the helm comes at a time of domestic and regional uncertainties 

Updated - May 21, 2024 01:33 pm IST

Published - May 21, 2024 12:15 am IST

The death of Iran’s eighth President, Ebrahim Raisi, and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in a helicopter crash in northwestern Iran amid bad weather has sent shockwaves across West Asia. Raisi and others, including local officials, were travelling to Tabriz after inaugurating a dam with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, on the countries’ shared border when his chopper went down in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province. Raisi, a conservative cleric, rose to power in 2021 after eight years of rule by moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who signed the 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers. Mr. Rouhani’s promise of change and prosperity through dialogue did not materialise as the then U.S. President, Donald Trump sabotaged the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. When moderates lost their face and morale, the conservatives tightened their grip on the state through Raisi. A confidant of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi escalated a crackdown on civil rights at home, strengthened Iran’s ties with Russia and China, doubled down on its support for non-state militias such as Hamas and Hezbollah and expanded Iran’s nuclear programme. In three years, he emerged as one of Iran’s most powerful men and was seen as a potential successor to Mr. Khamenei.

The death of the President could not have come at a worse time for Iran. It is already struggling to stabilise a stricken economy, battered by U.S.-imposed sanctions, and trying to calm social tensions. The nuclear deal remains dead and West Asia is on fire. In April, Raisi oversaw an unprecedented attack on Israel following Israel’s strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus. Israel’s meek response avoided an all-out war but tensions remained high. In recent years, Iran has also lost key officials. In the deaths of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian, the Islamic Republic has lost an experienced, crisis-hardened cleric administrator and a seasoned diplomat. It is understandable that Iran would need time to get over the shock that it is in now. Given the geopolitical tensions, Raisi’s death could also fuel conspiracy theories, which could further inflame the region. So, it is imperative for Iran to get to the bottom of the crash. Another priority is that the transition to a new presidency is handled smoothly. First Vice-President Mohammed Mokhber will assume interim presidential powers and the country is expected to hold a presidential election within 50 days. A change in presidency is unlikely to alter Iran’s foreign policy direction, 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.

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