President Raisi’s demise leaves Iran at a crossroads - Hindustan Times
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President Raisi’s demise leaves Iran at a crossroads

May 21, 2024 10:08 PM IST

Raisi’s rise to the presidency had been systematically brought about by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as part of a generational change in Iran’s political leadership.

On May 19, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, foreign minister Hossein Abdollahian and two other top provincial officials were killed in a helicopter crash in the mountainous terrain of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, bordering Azerbaijan. Raisi was returning after inaugurating, along with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, the jointly constructed dam on the Aras River at the shared border. Raisi’s visit had marked the thawing of tensions with Baku, which had closed its embassy in Tehran in January 2023 after an armed assault by an Iranian man had left the head of the security service of the embassy dead. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the Supreme Leader has the ultimate authority and sets the broad contours of national security and foreign policy, the untimely death of a president does not necessarily constitute a shock to the system. But, in this case, Raisi’s rise to the presidency had been systematically brought about by current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as part of a smooth generational change in Iran’s political leadership.

People hold up posters of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a mourning ceremony for him at Vali-e-Asr square in downtown Tehran, Iran,(AP) PREMIUM
People hold up posters of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a mourning ceremony for him at Vali-e-Asr square in downtown Tehran, Iran,(AP)

Raisi, like Khamenei, hailed from the north-eastern city of Mashhad, a holy city built around the burial place of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam in Twelver Shia Islam. In 2016, Khamenei appointed Raisi as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, which manages the Imam Reza Shrine and the wealthiest religious endowment in the country. After Raisi lost the presidential race to moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2017, he was appointed as the judiciary chief in 2019 and also appointed to the executive board of the Assembly of Experts, the 88-member clerical body responsible for electing the Supreme Leader. As chief justice, he carried out a comprehensive anti-corruption campaign in the judiciary, which gained him popularity, while his support for the enforcement of mandatory hijab established his conservative credentials.

Raisi’s victory in the 2021 presidential election was predetermined by the Guardian Council, which disqualified not only reformist hopefuls but also traditional conservatives such as former parliament speaker Ali Larijani and former two-term president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who posed challenges to Raisi’s candidacy. The qualifying criteria for the position of Supreme Leader is that the candidate must be a cleric with religious scholarship at the rank of Ayatollah and must have political experience in the executive branch. Raisi not only had a theological background, like Khamenei and Khomenei before him, but he was also a sayyid— a descendant of the Prophet. If any more signals were needed about Raisi’s centrality to Supreme Leader succession, in the elections to the Assembly of Experts simultaneously held with parliamentary elections in March this year, Raisi was elected from the South Khorasan province with no challenger; prominent contenders such as former president Hassan Rouhani were disqualified. The Assembly was to meet this week to elect the new chairman, and Raisi, who held the position of first deputy, was widely seen as the frontrunner.

In 2019, on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Khamenei outlined his vision of ideological revival amid generational change under the slogan of “the second phase of the revolution”. At a time when many of the leaders and movements that defined Iran’s politics over the past three decades have faded away from the scene, Raisi, as Khamenei’s protégé, was to lead the next generation of conservatives who will maintain tight control over the Iranian society to prevent any political challenges to the system from below as well as enhance both the military capabilities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s regional influence as deterrence against external foes.

The Raisi government’s enforcement of the mandatory hijab in the face of popular challenge in the form of the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests, and a resurgent “axis-of-resistance” to take on the United States and Israel in West Asia, had left no doubt that he was the man to carry out Khamenei’s ‘second phase of revolution.’ It is for these reasons that Raisi’s death has derailed the succession planning in Tehran.

Given none of the former presidents have been deemed suitable for the position of Supreme Leader, the twin task of finding a new president and a possible leader is fraught with challenges. First, the reformists and moderates have been crowded out of the political system, leaving a much narrower political spectrum in Iran, to the extent that all elections in Iran since the 2020 parliamentary elections have been primarily a competition among the conservative factions.

The Supreme Leader will have to manage the infighting and divisions among the traditional conservatives and the younger generation of hardliners who are vying for top positions, whether of parliament speaker or ministerial berths. The second possibility is that the next presidential elections, which have to be held within the next 50 days, are open for wider competition, including those who have been pushed out of the system. Such a change may, on the one hand, have the effect of increasing popular participation in the process while, on the other, could encounter a backlash from the conservative and security brass which won’t like to loosen their grip on power.

The Islamic Republic, which has survived the last four decades despite numerous internal and external challenges, excels in the survival game. It will find a way or muddle through yet another phase of uncertainty and change.

Deepika Saraswat is associate fellow, West Asia Center, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views expressed are personal

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