Ebrahim Raisi’s death complicates political road map of Iranian extremist faction: Iran expert Vali Nasr | World News - Hindustan Times
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Ebrahim Raisi’s death complicates political road map of Iranian extremist faction: Iran expert Vali Nasr

May 20, 2024 09:26 PM IST

Top Iran expert Vali Nasr said that contrary to widely held perceptions that saw it as just a totalitarian dictatorship, the Iranian polity was complex

WASHINGTON: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s death in an air crash will not have an impact on the wider geopolitical dynamic in West Asia and Tehran’s foreign policy choices immediately, but it will impact the Iranian domestic political landscape and complicate the political road map of the extreme-right faction, Vali Nasr, among the most highly regarded global experts on Iran, has said.

Ebrahim Raisi was a part of the Iranian establishment that made foreign policy decisions but he didn’t influence it in any major way (via REUTERS FILE)
Ebrahim Raisi was a part of the Iranian establishment that made foreign policy decisions but he didn’t influence it in any major way (via REUTERS FILE)

In a conversation with HT, hours after Raisi’s death was confirmed, Nasr, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University and has advised multiple US administrations on Iran, said that Raisi was a part of the Iranian establishment that made foreign policy decisions but he didn’t influence it in any major way. Raisi’s significance, Nasr suggested, lay in who he represented, what happens next in the battle for the presidency, and who emerges as the 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successor.

Also Read: Ebrahim Raisi’s death ends a troubled presidency; rattles Iran’s leadership succession plan

“Raisi represented a particular faction in Iran, which was on the right of the conservatives and was way more extreme than the mainstream. Given that the Constitution mandates having a presidential election in the next 50 days, Raisi’s death presents a problem for this faction; it doesn’t have an obvious successor with the same national profile, name recognition and credentials,” Nasr said. Raisi’s image and profile were carefully constructed, including by making him the head of the judiciary, and his death disrupts plans.

Nasr said that contrary to widely held perceptions that saw it as just a totalitarian dictatorship, the Iranian polity was complex. “If you look at the Iranian press or social media, you don’t get to criticise the Supreme Leader but there is plenty of criticism of the government or its economic management or other policies. Elections aren’t fully open in the sense that the guardian council decides who gets to run. But once the council has decided who runs, it is fairly open and Iranian elections have produced surprises,” Nasr said, pointing to the election of a reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami despite the wishes of the Supreme Leader in the past.

It is in this backdrop of a limited degree of political competition that exists within a closed system that Raisi’s death leaves the hard right faction without a clear “viable candidate”. “The Supreme Leader has to balance various factions. Even within the Revolutionary Guard, there are various factions. It is an authoritarian and theocratic system, but within that, it is somewhat open politically”.

The other implication of Raisi’s death is in terms of post-Khamenei succession plans, given that the two names most widely speculated to be in the running included Raisi and Ayatollah Khameini’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei. Nasr said that while the son has always been a candidate and hasn’t kept his ambitions secret, not everyone even within the far-right faction supported him. The fact that the Iranian revolution was itself against hereditary rule, appointing his son could give the impression of a monarchy, and that the Supreme Leader himself has said in the past that monarchy is against Islam, adds to Mojtaba’s challenges.

“That is why Raisi was groomed as a potential leader. In fact, he was to be appointed as the head of the assembly of experts that picks the Supreme Leader. Raisi’s death will either lead to the Supreme Leader picking his son or force him to come up with a name that isn’t obvious at the moment. It opens up the process.”

On whether this also means that political space opens up for reformists within the Iranian system amid the churn at the top, Nasr said, “The hardliners won’t want to give an inch. The reformists are too far to the left. But there are centrists and moderates who will see this as an opportunity to regain some territory and force the Supreme Leader to open up the presidency to a cross-section. This was not a scenario that extremists had planned for.”

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