Post-Raisi Iran and the Middle East

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The untimely death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash has precipitated a leadership transition that is expected to likely result in minimal changes to the country’s trajectory. President Raisi’s sudden demise occurred amidst escalating tensions between Iran and Israel, raising concerns across the Middle East and internationally. This crisis, instigated by the conflict in Gaza, has led to increased violence along Lebanon’s southern border, in the Red Sea, and Syria and Iraq. Last month, confrontations between Israel and Iran exacerbated the situation, with Israeli airstrikes killing Iranian military officers in Syria and Iran retaliating by launching hundreds of munitions at Israel. The heightened confrontation has fueled fears of a regional conflict, despite Iran’s repeated assertions of seeking to avoid such an outcome. Not only that, on the domestic front, Iran was going through a tumultuous situation as Protests erupted across Iran after the morality police killed Mahsa Jina Amini in September 2022. In the wake of President Raisi’s death, Mohammad Mokhber and Ali Bagheri Kani have assumed the roles of interim president and foreign minister, respectively, pending the election of a new president. This election is scheduled for June 28, with candidate registrations open from May 30 to June 3. Against this backdrop, questions arise regarding the potential impact of Raisi’s death on Iran’s international policies especially in the Middle East.

Iran’s Foreign Policy under the Raisi Administration

President Ibrahim Raisi’s tenure was marked by efforts to mitigate Iran’s economic challenges, exacerbated by international sanctions. His administration primarily focused on economic stabilization, inflation control, and addressing public unrest. During his tenure, Raisi pursued a pragmatic foreign policy aimed at strengthening ties with Asia, particularly China, believing in Iran’s capacity to develop indigenous industries capable of meeting the nation’s needs, including advanced military technologies. The reason for his advocacy for self-reliance and closer relations with Asian countries was doubting the prospects of favorable dealings with the West. Upon assuming office in April 2021, Western media labeled him a “hardliner,” though his administration largely continued existing policies while also seeking to revitalize certain aspects. Raisi was a vocal critic of Israel and supported robust actions against it. Iran, under Raisi’s presidency, continued its longstanding policy of non-recognition of Israel and maintained a hostile rhetoric towards the state.

His foreign policy aimed at deepening relations with China and Russia. In January 2022, Raisi visited Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin, capitalizing on Moscow’s ambition to reshape the global order, which Iran viewed as an opportunity to advance its vision of a “new Middle East”. Moreover, The Russia-Iran alliance grew more robust after Russia’s war with Ukraine, with Iran supplying Shahid 136 drones to Russia, enhancing Iran’s regional military dominance. Raisi’s eastern policy bore fruit as China facilitated Iran’s reconciliation with Saudi Arabia in 2023, and the Gulf powers supported Iran in restoring Syria’s membership in the Arab League. Iran, Russia, and China also increased their naval cooperation, and Iran expanded its outreach to India and Central Asia. Ibrahim Raisi was an impeccable leader for Iran and its foreign policy centering on the Middle East and the rest of the world. His death introduces several uncertainties in the Middle East, stemming from potential shifts in domestic politics, regional alliances, and military strategies. It is, therefore, important to see the plausible changes regarding the strategic posture in post-Raisi Iran.

Potential Changes in Iran’s Strategic Posture

Although there is much speculation going on, the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is not expected to significantly alter Iran’s foreign policy because the key reasons for this continuity are rooted in the structure and distribution of power within the Iranian political system. Despite the deaths of Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, significant shifts in Iran’s foreign policy are unlikely. Iran’s foreign policy is predominantly shaped by the National Security Council, the Supreme Leader, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These institutions maintain continuity in Iran’s strategic objectives, irrespective of changes in the presidency. As such, the core elements of Iran’s regional strategy are likely to remain stable. Hence, the country’s regional posture, antagonism towards Israel, and efforts to mend relations with Arab neighbors are expected to persist.

Domestically, Raisi’s death could alter the power dynamics, potentially inciting a struggle between conservative factions and other political groups. The interim leadership, likely emerging from the Revolutionary Guards and other conservative entities, may witness increased political maneuvering. Iran’s political landscape is complex, and this transition may reveal underlying tensions and alliances. Concerns have arisen that regional adversaries might exploit this period of vulnerability. Although the regime tightly controls political candidates and the overall direction, internal power struggles could weaken conservative cohesion, possibly empowering reformist forces. Additionally, Raisi’s death has raised questions about the future leadership, given the age of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Raisi’s death will cause “a succession crisis in Iran in the long term. Raisi was a key player in Iran’s conservative establishment, often viewed as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His death has created a big vacancy in the political hierarchy, perhaps triggering a power struggle between conservative elements and other political groupings. Nonetheless, there will be a period of uncertainty till the next president is determined. The Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards make the final decisions, and even throughout the area, they mostly implement Iran’s regional strategy. It is clear that before and during the election, Iran is going to keep a sharp eye on its people to avoid any kind of unintended intrusion in domestic politics., there was concern that Iran’s adversaries in the region might see an opportunity and push the envelope. Iran will try to deal with the situation in a more controlled manner.

However, Iran is likely to respond with a show of continuity and strength to deter any perceived opportunism. This response would reaffirm Iran’s commitment to its strategic objectives and regional engagements.

In conclusion, while the death of President Raisi introduces a period of uncertainty, substantial deviations in Iran’s security policies are improbable in the near term, especially amidst ongoing regional conflicts. Regardless of the rhetorical approach, major changes in Iran’s security policies are unlikely in the immediate future, particularly as long as the conflict in Gaza persists and broader regional stabilization is not accomplished. These ongoing battles ensure that Iran’s strategic imperatives in the area remain a top priority, and any meaningful deviation from present security strategies is unlikely unless the regional geopolitical situation shifts. The death of President Ebrahim Raisi introduces a range of implications for the Middle East, primarily characterized by short-term uncertainties and potential adjustments in Iran’s internal and external policies. While the fundamental strategic direction of Iran is expected to remain consistent, the transition period would remain unchanged in regional dynamics, alliances, and conflict trajectories, with both immediate and long-term repercussions.

– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA). She is on Study Leave for Pursuing Her Higher Studies in Japan.

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