A WOMAN carrying a poster of Iran’s late president Ebrahim Raisi attends his funeral procession in Tehran, on Wednesday.—AFP
A WOMAN carrying a poster of Iran’s late president Ebrahim Raisi attends his funeral procession in Tehran, on Wednesday.—AFP

IRAN stands at a critical juncture following the untimely demise of President Ebrahim Raisi. The substantial public turnout at his funeral in Tehran on Wednesday was not just a display of widespread mourning, but also a show of solidarity, symbolism and political continuity.

Meanwhile, the presence of international leaders at the funeral, especially from the Arab world, was a subtle nod to Iran’s strategic repositioning on the Middle Eastern diplomatic chessboard.

As a significant regional powerhouse, Iran’s political and strategic responses following President Raisi’s death were closely watched across the globe because of the internal challenges that the country faces and the escalating conflict dynamics in the region, particularly due to the ongoing months-long war in Gaza.

Observers were keenly interested in how Tehran navigated the leadership transition, viewing it as a potential indicator of the changes that might ensue in the event of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s passing.

IRGC’s increasing clout, Khamenei’s control of foreign policy set to ensure continuity of Tehran’s strategic ambitions

Contrary to speculations of a power vacuum emerging after Raisi, Tehran demonstrated control and organisation in its response: Khamenei immediately installed Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as acting president to manage the forthcoming elections now set for June 28, barely 39 days after the tragic crash, while Ali Bagheri Kani, a key diplomat, was appointed as the interim foreign minister following Amir Abdollahian’s death in the same crash.

Iran’s ability to weather severe crises is not unprecedented. The country’s history, particularly during the tumultuous 1980s when it faced the Iran-Iraq War, is an indicator of the strength of its institutional framework.

On August 30, 1981, Iran suffered a huge setback when President Rajaei and his Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar, then effectively the vice president, were killed in an office explosion, creating a political vacuum during early years of the Iran-Iraq War.

This came just a couple of months after judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti and several key political figures were killed in a bomb blast. These back-to-back incidents, coupled with an assassination attempt on Ayatollah Khamenei, then a politician, could have destabilised the country.

This resilience is deeply embedded in Iran’s constitution, which also facilitated a smooth transition after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Raisi’s legacy

Raisi’s presidency has largely been about upholding revolutionary values rather than introducing radical reforms. His governance reinforced the conservative status quo, aligning closely with the supreme leader’s strategic decisions, while limiting the scope for significant political reform.

Though Western commentators often speculated about President Raisi being a potential successor to Ayatollah Khamenei, this view was not widely shared within Iran itself. According to Prof Muhammad Marandi, a notable commentator on Iranian affairs, the notion of Raisi succeeding Khamenei as the supreme leader was largely a Western construct. Marandi emphasised that Khamenei remains in good health and clarified the structured constitutional process in place for leadership transition in Iran.

He pointed out that there is an elected council of experts tasked with the selection or removal of a leader, when necessary. This council, he affirmed, will execute its constitutional duties when the time arises.

Khamenei, it may be recalled, was not a frontrunner to succeed Khomeini when the last transition took place. In fact, Khomeini had initially handpicked Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as his successor, but changed his mind nearly three months before he passed away, and eventually Khamenei was picked in the only transition so far since 1979.

Possibility of a change

The potential for change in the wake of Raisi’s death, therefore, would hinge on the dynamics of the upcoming electoral process. Iranian politics, where individuals are more important than party platforms, faces a complex scenario. Therefore, the presidential candidates’ personalities and their alignments will play a crucial role.

It remains to be seen who steps forward and what political narrative they choose to adopt in a post-Raisi Iran. Some speculate that main candidates may include Parliament Speaker Muhammad Baqir Qalibaf, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, acting president Mokhber or former speaker Ali Larijani.

The focus on the funeral in Tehran temporarily overshadowed electoral discussions, which will begin at the end of the official five-day mourning period and the commencement of the registration of candidates.

The upcoming election is expected to diverge from recent ones, which have been marked by voter apathy and low turnout. This election would more than just choosing a successor to Raisi. How candidates and political factions respond to the immediate crisis and articulate their visions for Iran’s future would determine the shape of the campaign.

The conservative bloc, likely buoyed by Raisi’s policies, may continue to hold sway, suggesting a preference for continuity over change. This inclination towards maintaining the status quo might be particularly appealing given the regional instability due to ongoing conflicts in which Iran is deeply involved and the absence of significant reformist momentum within the country.

Shift in power centre

Raisi’s death has also brought discussions about the future power dynamics within Iran to the forefront, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) expanding its role and becoming more assertive.

Over the past two decades, the IRGC has significantly bolstered its influence not only in the military sphere but also across the political and economic landscapes of Iran. This trend suggests a potential shift in how power might be structured in coming years.

The increasing clout of the IRGC could redefine Iran’s strategic postures.

“We have different branches of state. We have different elements within the structures of the state and things will continue as before. We will soon have elections and a new president will take office and his policies would probably be similar to President Raisi especially in the domain of foreign policy where there’s large degree of consensus,” Marandi said.

“With regards to internal politics and economy, we will have to wait and see, who is the candidate and who is ultimately elected,” he added.

Foreign policy

The potential impact of Raisi’s death on Iran’s foreign policy is likely to be minimal in terms of strategic shifts, primarily due to the central role of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in determining the country’s foreign policy direction and the IRGC factor. Over the past decades, despite changes in the presidency, Iran’s foreign policy has exhibited considerable continuity.

Under President Raisi, Iran had continued its “Look East” policy, a strategic orientation that sought to enhance ties with Eastern powers such as China and Russia, reflecting a deep-seated mistrust towards the West, which had been further entrenched by the failed nuclear deal.

Raisi’s administration focused on strengthening economic and political ties with non-Western countries, notably through his tours in Africa and Latin America, aiming to reduce economic vulnerability due to Western sanctions and diversify its international relationships. Addition­ally, Iran’s relationship with Russia has deepened significantly under Raisi, particularly highlighted by military cooperation and support amidst the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

In the context of regional politics, Iran’s involvement in supporting groups like Hamas and its broader role in Middle Eastern geopolitics are expected to remain consistent. These policies are deeply embedded in the state’s ideological and strategic objectives.

One of the notable achievements of Iranian foreign policy under Raisi was the mending of fences with Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh expressed its condolences and solidarity with Iran, highlighting a moment of diplomatic softening between the historically rival countries. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud both sent letters to Acting President Mokhber, conveying their deepest sympathies to the people of Iran.

The improvement Teh­ran’s ties with Arab world was also noticeable from Tunisian president Kais Saied and Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry’s visit to Tehran for participating in Raisi’s funeral. This was first ever visit by Tunisian and Egyptian leaders to Iran.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2024

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