Opinion | Raisi Transformed Iran's Foreign Policy. Yet, His Death Won't Change Much

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On May 19, the world was stunned by news of the disappearance and later the crash of a helicopter in the Varzhagan region of northwestern Iran, carrying the country's President, Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian, and other officials. The next day, Vice-President Mansouri confirmed reports that Raisi and his delegation had died in the crash. First Vice-President Mohammad Mukhbel will now serve as the Acting President of Iran until fresh elections are held. The Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, has taken charge as the Acting Foreign Minister. According to the Iranian Constitution, in the event of the death of the President, Iran must hold a fresh election in 50 days. 

Raisi was returning from the Azerbaijan border on Sunday after flagging off a jointly built dam project with his Azeri counterpart, Ilham Aliyev. The project is the third dam built by the two countries on the Arax River. According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Raisi was travelling on a US-made Bell 212 helicopter, which was not in the best condition reportedly because of the US embargo on the supply of spare parts to Iran.

A Chequered Legacy

While the provisions of the Iranian Constitution do not leave room for any power vacuum, Raisi, 63, leaves behind a somewhat mixed legacy. Beginning life as a cleric and then moving on to the judiciary, Raisi rose consistently in rank to finally become president in 2021. Unlike his "reformist" predecessor Hassan Rouhani, Raisi belonged to the "hardliners" camp. He was known to be close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and was seen by many as one of his possible successors. 

Raisi took charge in Tehran against the backdrop of a crumbling Iranian economy, further devastated by renewed US sanctions as the then US President, Donald Trump, pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that iran had negotiated with the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union. The Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated his challenges.

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Difficult as the situation was, his government ordered a tightening of morality laws. Under Raisi's watch, Iranians saw a bloody crackdown on the allegedly "anti-government" protests - also called the Enghelab protests - in 2022 against compulsory hijab and dress codes. Hundreds of people were reported to have died in the crackdown, and many more were arrested. 

Decades before that, he was also sanctioned by the US administration for his alleged role in the 1988 executions of thousands of political prisoners in the country's jails - charges that he had denied but which earned him the infamous moniker of the "Butcher of Tehran". Raisi's conservative policies made him a chequered figure in domestic Iranian politics. 

A Tough Bargainer

On the other hand, in terms of foreign policy, Raisi was a firm negotiator in nuclear talks with world powers. With the JCPOA in jeopardy, Raisi and his Foreign Minister pivoted to the east, drawing Iran closer to countries like Russia, China, the Central Asian countries, and even Africa. Raisi even expended effort in cultivating better relations with India at a time when bilateral relations were under a cloud because of the sanctions on Tehran.

Under Raisi, Iran concentrated more on regional and Eurasian partnerships. The country became a member of both BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and Raisi had thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for helping facilitate these memberships. During his reign, Iran also entered a "truce" facilitated by China with arch-rival Saudi Arabia. This led to the reestablishing of diplomatic relations between the two. Additionally, Iran has also been helping Russia in its war on Ukraine by supplying it with military drones.

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In the Arab world, Raisi's reign saw a strengthening of Iran's relations with countries like Kuwait and Egypt, as well as efforts to rebuild strained relations with neighbours like Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Pakistan. In fact, soon after the tit-for-tat strikes on each other's territory, Raisi had visited Islamabad as a conciliatory gesture.

Under him, Iran's oil production rose to its highest at 3.4 million barrels per day, exceeding even pre-sanctions levels. China accounted for the most sales. Separately, Raisi was pushing for the continuation of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which had been stalled for more than a decade, and was also seeking to recover debts from the UK after the latter violated the 1979 tank supply contract with Iran worth £400 m. With the US, Tehran was conducting secret negotiations under Raisi regarding the country's nuclear programme and hostage exchange. Just last year, the US released $6 billion of Iranian frozen funds in exchange.

The Israel-Gaza Crisis, And Iran

The most talked about factor in the current times, however, is the devastating war between Israel, Iran's sworn enemy, and Hamas, whom Iran supports. While Iran continued supporting its Shiite proxies across the region - the militias in Iraq, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen - its support for Hamas, the only Sunni proxy that Iran supports, has been a striking example of Shia-Sunni cooperation in the region. His legacy will also include the astonishing and unprecedented direct attacks on Israel as a response to the strikes on the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus in April.

With regards to India, Raisi's legacy will note not just renewed bilateral relations but the clinching of the 10-year agreement between the two sides for the management of the Chabahar port. The project had been close to his heart and he had discussed it a number of times in meetings and phone calls with Modi. India, in turn, has declared a one-day mourning throughout the country as a mark of respect for the demise of Raisi and Amirabdollahian. Both Modi and India's External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, expressed condolences on X. 

The Show Goes On 

However, despite his deep imprint on Iran's foreign policy, Raisi's demise may not see any major foreign policy shifts in the region. The country's Strategic Council on Foreign Relations said in a statement on Monday that Tehran would continue to pursue its "foreign policy agenda" under Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei. "Without a doubt, the path of Iran's foreign policy will continue with strength and power, under the guidance of the Supreme Leader," the statement read. Another report in IRNA commended the duo "for their efforts in confronting the unjust [Western] sanctions, securing Iran's membership in international alliances such the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS, expanding cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), supporting the Axis of Resistance and the Palestinian cause, as well as improving Iran's relations with neighbouring countries."

Foreign policy in Iran is often shaped by not only the Iranian Foreign Ministry but also by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), though the ultimate decision-making authority lies with the Supreme Leader. Thus, no major foreign policy shift should be expected under a new president. Nonetheless, Iran will be investigating the crash and foul play can't be ruled out - yet. If, in case, at any time in future, it is discovered that the crash was engineered, Iran may be forced to act. That, however, is a long way off.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author