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Dhaka Tribune

Post-Raisi, continuity will define Iranian politics

Where does Iran stand in the aftermath of Raisi’s tragic end?

Update : 23 May 2024, 11:27 AM

The death of a governing leader, especially in tragic circumstances, is traumatic for people not only in the leader’s own country but also in nations around the globe. One certainly does not expect presidents and prime ministers to die in harness, but nature often intervenes and sees to it that its intended victims go the way of all flesh.

President Ebrahim Raisi’s death, though, was not brought about by natural causes. When his helicopter went down -- and with him were foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and others -- it was tragedy of an unimaginable sort. It now remains for the Iranian authorities to explain the nature of the helicopter crash. Might there have been any conspiracy involved? Or did the pilot make a mistake? Could Iran’s global enemies, and they are legion, have had a hand in the death of the president?

These are all questions which will be around for a good length of time. What is of significance at this point, however, is whether Raisi’s death will have any bearing on Iranian politics from here on. Many have been the speculations in these past few days, for the good reason that Raisi’s was a hardline presidency which was not noted for tolerating dissent in Iran. The persecution of young women -- there is the instance of the young Mahsa Amini who died in prison in suspicious circumstances because her head gear did not conform to religious standards -- was part of policy under Raisi in the country.

On a broader scale, though, Iran’s presidents since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have had their hands tied in the matter of policy-making. The reason of course is the unchallenged authority of the country’s supreme spiritual leader, first Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One recalls the abruptness with which Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s first post-Shah president, was sent packing by Khomeini not long after he took charge of the office. Those post-1979 months and years were tales of brutality, with people like Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the foreign minister in the Islamic state, dying on the gallows.

Those days of turmoil are now in the past. But what has been a continuity is the authority of the supreme leader in accepting or dismissing political decisions on the basis of the powers given to him by the constitution. Indeed, Raisi’s election to the presidency in 2021 was a result of the support he had from Khamenei. All other candidates were rendered insignificant, could not mount a proper electoral challenge to Raisi. The lesson today, therefore, is obvious: whoever succeeds Raisi will need the supreme leader’s support, which by extension would mean that the illiberalism which has been a mark of politics in Iran will continue. Within hours of Raisi’s helicopter going missing, Khamenei informed Iranians that the business of government would go on as usual.

As Iranians mourn, it is also a moment to reflect on the toughness which President Raisi demonstrated in Iran’s foreign relations. His attitude to Israel and to Israeli allies was uncompromising, which was a departure from the Israel-related policies of governments, a good number of them, elsewhere in the region. The Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus was one assault too many, after the senior Iranian figures murdered by Tel Aviv and its friends over a period of time. Raisi’s decision to send fears down the Israeli political leadership by firing missiles into Israel did not cause much damage, but it was a warning to Netanyahu and western leaders that Israel should not get away with its mission of murder, not just in Gaza but elsewhere as well.

Should Raisi’s government have struck Israel harder? The answer is, no! Iran’s President needed to serve a purposeful message to the world and he did that. His government was not ready to risk a wider conflict, a situation Netanyahu and his extreme rightwing government would have loved to see happen. Raisi’s pragmatism was at work, but it was pragmatism which came allied with tough policy. Iranian involvement with Hezbollah and the Houthis has never wavered, but at the same time Raisi’s government moved to improve relations with countries like Saudi Arabia. The president was careful to distinguish between domestic policy and diplomacy. And of course, he had the support of Iran’s supreme leader in following through on such measures.

So where does Iran stand in the aftermath of Raisi’s tragic end? Suffice it to say that the clergy will not relax their hold on power, that it will be unrealistic to expect Iran to open up in the way the West would like it to. Yet it is also true that political repression within the country has had the world properly worried. That is an area the Islamic leadership will need to review and replace with policies and politics which can only strengthen and elevate Iran’s position in the international community. The truth is that under the ayatollahs Iran has reached a level of power that worries its enemies. A liberalisation of politics at home will add to that strength. Iran’s nuclear plans, or ambitions if you will, make it a force to reckon with.

It goes to the credit of the ayatollahs that on their watch Iran has truly transformed itself into a proper sovereign republic. That is a departure from the pro-West, particularly pro-Washington, stance of the Shah. Tehran today enjoys good relations with China, Russia and India, besides other nations. Its tough attitude toward the West ought not to be expected to change in the near future. But for the West, it will become necessary to engage with the Iranian leadership on ways of exploring the means of improving ties with Tehran. Sanctions against Iran have been counter-productive, for Iran is not a state which will go supplicant when threatened by the powerful men and women holding sway in Europe and North America.

Ebrahim Raisi’s successor is expected to be a hardliner in the usual scheme of things. It will therefore be intelligent for Iran’s detractors to begin sending out feelers to the regime on a softening of the hardness which has defined Iranian policy since the triumph of the Islamic Revolution. Raisi’s death changes nothing, for Iran is governed under an Islamic constitution. Iran will not go to the world. It is the world which should meet Iran halfway.

The Islamic constitution empowers Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with sweeping powers. And he will exercise this authority till his time on earth draws to an end. Khamenei is in his mid-eighties. The direction that Iran will take is therefore a question which can be answered when Khamenei’s successor comes into the picture.

For now, however, as Iranians grieve at losing their president, it is only proper to assume that continuity will remain the hallmark of policy in Iran. It will be naïve to expect any policy change in these immediate post-Raisi times. 


Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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