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What lies ahead for Iran after Raisi’s death

Ebrahim Raisi’s  death may not impact Tehran's foreign policy or even domestic policy as it is   the Supreme Leader who holds ultimate authority

What lies ahead for Iran after Raisi’s death
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and seven others, including two pilots and a technician, died when their helicopter crashed near Iran’s borders with Azerbaijan on 19 May. 

They were returning from Iran’s north-western province of East Azerbaijan following the inauguration of a dam, where Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev was also present. 

The crash

The most important question here is: Did bad weather cause the accident, or was there interference by the Israeli intelligence, given the recent hostilities between the two countries?

Israel has not claimed responsibility, but it should be noted that as a standard practice, Tel Aviv neither claims nor denies ‘responsibility’ in such cases. 

Iran has officially maintained that bad weather caused the fatal accident. Even if Iran had reasons to suspect Israeli involvement, it is unlikely to disclose this until it has figured out an appropriate response.

As of now, we may conclude that bad weather alone caused the crash. 

If bad weather were the sole cause, it raises a question: Why was the pilot not informed of the bad weather in advance so that the flight could have been diverted?

Former Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has blamed the US for the crash because of the American sanctions on aviation parts. 

In 2018, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the US was required to lift sanctions on humanitarian goods, including food, medicine, and aviation safety equipment. However, Washington refused to comply.

The crashed helicopter, made by Texas-based Bell Textron Inc., might have been old and poorly maintained, as Zarif implied.

So, who was Ebrahim Raisi?

Born in 1960 in Mashhad in northeastern Iran, Raisi pursued a clerical career from an early age, inspired by his father. He spent time in Qom, a center of Shiite scholarship and the base of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. That upheaval had ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and established the Islamic Republic, with Khomeini as its first Supreme Leader until his death in 1989. The current Supreme Leader, Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, succeeded him.

It is important to note that the Supreme Leader is chosen for life. However, Khamenei, 85, had indicated his intention to retire next year, with expectations that Raisi would be elevated to that position.

Raisi, who obtained a PhD in Islamic Jurisprudence, had entered the judicial service. As a protege of Ayatollah Khamenei, Raisi quickly climbed ranks. During his tenure as prosecutor general, Raisi had played a key role in the execution of thousands of Iranians at the end of Iraq-Iran war in 1988. The judicial process was deeply flawed.

Raisi’s legacy

As president, Raisi brutally suppressed women’s protests against the draconian dress code for women, resulting in numerous deaths, including that of Mahsa Amini in September 2022. He ruthlessly suppressed non-violent public protests. 

In short, his legacy in domestic policy is deeply flawed.

When discussing foreign policy, it’s important to note that the Supreme Leader holds the ultimate decision-making power. Overall, Raisi’s record in foreign policy was reasonably good.

With China mediating, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a rapprochement in 2023. During this writer’s time as first secretary in the Indian Embassy in Iran (1976-79), there was no hostility between Riyadh and Tehran.

The theory proposed by some international relations scholars that the Shia-Sunni division alone explains the strained relations between the two countries is overly simplistic. The Shah, as the regional leader, followed Washington’s instructions and worked to maintain Pax Americana, and Riyadh accepted it.

Raisi belonged to an influential school of thought that distrusted Washington and therefore opposed the Iran nuclear deal, technically known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which was concluded in 2015 during Barack Obama’s presidency. Sanctions on Iran imposed by the US and others were lifted as a part of the deal.

Trump unjustly withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Despite this, Iran did not immediately retaliate by violating the restrictions on uranium enrichment. Instead, it made efforts to persuade the Europeans to continue doing business with it. 

The Europeans initially agreed, but soon developed cold feet as they dared not stand up to Trump. As a consequence,  Iran began enriching uranium beyond the permitted level.

In renewed negotiations with the JCPOA signatories following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Iran under Raisi adopted a firm stance.

Will Iran reverse its policy of abstaining from making nuclear weapons? One does not know. My assessment is that Iran may have already made the decision to pursue nuclear weapon  capabilities, but they are unlikely to announce it  right now. They are adept at playing diplomatic chess.

Israel has consistently opposed the JCPOA and as recently as on 13 April, demonstrated its capability and willingness to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.

In this context, it’s important to consider President Biden’s role. As a candidate, he pledged to rejoin the JCPOA, but as president, he followed Trump’s policy. It’s possible that candidate Biden’s pledge was not sincere and was made to differentiate himself from Trump and to show a commitment to America’s international obligations.

There is another explanation. 

Antony Blinken, as secretary of state-designate, had informed the Senate before his confirmation that he would adhere to Trump’s  policy without explicitly mentioning his name. 

Blinken emphasized that Iran needed to cease its ‘destabilizing’ activities in the region and agree to restrictions on ballistic missile development before Washington would re-engage with the JCPOA. It’s possible that Blinken felt compelled to make these statements to secure his appointment.

Iran agreed to talks moderated by the European Union. But Washington took a tough line by seeking to impose conditions on Iran, knowing too well that Tehran would reject them. Iran was not going to accept sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The short point is that the pro-Israeli lobby holds strong influence in Congress and Biden may have been unwilling to take it head on. The regrettable result is that Iran might go nuclear—thereby threatening Israel’s security. Additionally, Iran’s alignment with the Russia-China axis, both economically and geopolitically, is also Biden’s legacy.

If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will follow. The UAE may be next. With Israel already holding nukes, the Middle East will become even more dangerous than it already is. 

Iran’s support for Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine is expected to persist, regardless of who succeeds Raisi. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already engaged with Iran’s interim president Mohammad Mokhber, indicating ongoing cooperation between the two countries.

What next?

Many world leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have expressed condolences on the death of Raisi. Biden has reportedly been briefed but has yet to react as normal protocol requires. 

It was shocking to listen to the reactions of US politicians to Raisi’s death, with Republican representative Michael Waltz from Florida terming it “good riddance.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, too, has been silent. It should come as no surprise if he follows Biden in expressing condolences, if the US president ever does. London has meekly and faithfully followed Washington’s stance on foreign policy issues.

Some in the Western media have speculated, and even gleefully anticipated, a civil war in Iran. They are in for disappointment. 

Iran’s path to democracy

The answer to the question why Iran has failed to be a democracy can be found in history. In 1953, under the leadership of then prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iran took steps towards democracy, forcing the Shah, Reza Pahlavi, to flee. 

Mosaddeq’s decision to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had been predominantly benefiting the UK, angered the British who suggested a military intervention. Then US president Dwight Eisenhower refused such  intervention but permitted the CIA to restore the Shah to power by staging a coup d’etat. 

The coup, largely bloodless, cost $10,000 in bribes to military officials, and prevented Iran from becoming a functional democracy. 

It remained a monarchy till 1979, when the Revolution overthrew the Shah and Iran was declared an Islamic Republic with Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader. There was no election to that post. One autocrat was replaced by another. 

Before the Shah fled, many young Iranians, educated in the West, had approached me for copies of India’s Constitution.  They wanted a normal democracy for Iran and admired India remaining a democracy without any military coup.

This writer was in Iran on 4 November 1979 when the US embassy was seized by young radicals acting entirely on their own without any instructions from Ayatollah Khomeini or Mehdi Bazargan, the Revolutionary Iran’s first prime minister. 

A few days prior to the takeover, the US president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski met with Bazargan in Algeria. 

Brzezinski assured Bazargan that there were no disputes between Tehran and Washington, the arms for which the Shah had paid would be delivered and emphasized the importance of cooperation to stop and reverse Soviet expansionism. 

Bazargan agreed.

However, Bazargan’s aides informed him that the radio reported President Carter’s intention to grant asylum to the Shah. Bazargan insisted that the Shah should be returned to Iran to face justice, but Brzezinski argued against it, stating that the Shah was an honored guest of the president and that there was no question of him being sent back. 

The talks ended, and within 48 hours, the embassy was seized, and Bazargan resigned.

In retrospect, Carter’s decision to grant asylum to the Shah has been heavily criticized and it  did contribute to his defeat by Ronald Raegan. Carter himself later expressed regret for this decision, taken under pressure from Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller. The US embassy in Tehran had warned the state department against granting asylum to the Shah, specifically drawing attention to the possibility of attack on the embassy.

Since then, America has promoted steps to prevent Iran from moving towards a democratic destination by continuing with its sanctions.

The never-ending sanctions make it easier for the hardliners in Iran to brand those who want democracy as America’s agents and suppress them.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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