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Losing Raisi: A major setback, but the Islamic Republic will endure

May 23, 2024 at 9:00 pm

People holding photos gathering at Valiasr Square mourn the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian and other Iranian officials in a helicopter crash on Sunday in Iran, during a ceremony in Tehran on May 20, 2024.. [Fatemeh Bahrami – Anadolu Agency]

On Wednesday, millions attended the funeral procession of Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, who along with top diplomat, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and six others, were killed in a helicopter crash on 19 May, near the Azerbaijan border due to poor weather conditions.

The funeral prayers, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were reminiscent of the mass mourning and national outpouring of grief seen after Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani’s assassination in January 2020.

Both events have been significant losses to the Islamic Republic—one militarily, the other politically—each with strategic implications. They have prompted speculation about the “regime’s” ability to survive such critical set-backs.

Despite recurrent crises, the Islamic Republic has consistently demonstrated a remarkable ability to endure and adapt – ever since facing the existential threat of the nearly decade-long brutal war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq shortly after the Islamic Revolution.

Throughout its 45-year history, the Islamic Republic has faced several existential threats, yet it has always managed to survive. The death of Soleimani, a key figure in expanding Iran’s regional influence, was widely seen as a severe blow to the establishment. At the time, some observers predicted significant destabilisation and possible regime change. Instead, the government leveraged Soleimani’s martyrdom to galvanise nationalistic sentiments and strengthen its position domestically and regionally.

Similarly, the widespread protests in 2009, 2017-2018 and, more recently, in 2019-2020 and 2022 which were fuelled by economic hardships and demands for rights and political reform, posed serious challenges to the theocracy. Despite brutal crackdowns and international condemnation, the government managed to maintain its grip on power through a combination of repression, strategic concessions and leveraging its ideological base.

READ: Officials from 68 countries attend Iran President’s funeral in Tehran

With Raisi’s death, attention has, once again, turned to the survivability of the Islamic Republic and whether it can weather the storm amid political upheaval. Asking ‘Will Raisi’s death will destabilize Iran?’ a commentary on Brookings notes: “An unexpected political opening may spark new activism against the regime, as highlighted by the scenes of Iranians celebrating the news of the crash that have begun to leak onto social media.”

While a piece in the New Yorker goes a step further: “the nation is deeply shaken about the future. For the regime’s supporters and dissidents alike, Raisi’s death has spawned an existential question: Who will lead Iran, especially with the looming death of Ayatollah Khamenei?” As for Saudi-funded Iran International, “Raisi’s death exposes Iran’s crisis of legitimacy once again.”

For the time being, Raisi’s immediate successor, in accordance with Section 131 of the Iranian Constitution, is First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, who himself, will be replaced following early elections, brought about due to the circumstances. Although there are several likely candidates, whoever assumes the position will almost certainly continue with Raisi’s foreign policy and pivot eastwards.

Under Raisi, Tehran strengthened ties with non-Western powers, China and Russia. This continuity is crucial for Iran’s strategy to counter US pressure and sanctions and, in turn, the survivability of the state.

Iran had procured the Bell 212 from US before 1979
Maintenance is difficult for US-made arms and vehicles in Iran as spare parts are scarce due to ongoing embargoes [Omar Zaghloul – Anadolu Agency]

Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and its accession into the BRICS group showcased its commitment to multipolarity, in addition to the Rouhani-era 25 year cooperation agreement, implemented under the Raisi administration.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi told Mahdi Safari, Iran’s deputy Foreign Minister: “Regardless of how conditions change, Beijing will continue to deepen its strategic partnership with Tehran, safeguard the shared interests of both countries, and continue its efforts for peace in the region and the world.”

During a meeting with the chairman of Russia’s lower chamber of parliament or State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin affirmed that Moscow is ready to continue cooperation with Tehran as it is under the Raisi administration, and will do everything to ensure that Russian-Iranian relations continue in this manner.

READ: Death of Iran President has delayed talks with IAEA, Grossi says

Aside from enhanced relations with Beijing and Moscow, Raisi also oversaw increased engagement with the Global South, including Latin American and African tours and a visit to Indonesia, further expanding Iran’s diplomatic outreach in the face of Western-imposed sanctions and opposition to the country’s nuclear ambitions.

Providing an insight as to the direction of post-Raisi Iran, a recent cabinet statement read: “We assure the loyal nation that the path of service will continue with the tireless spirit of Ayatollah Raisi,” stressing that the government will continue to operate “without the slightest disruption.” If anything, “Raisi’s legacy is set to continue” as is the legacy of Amir-Abdollahian “which is based on closeness with the IRGC, outreach to the Gulf states” and maintaining relationships with the Axis of Resistance.

Iran’s deeper involvement in support of the Palestinian Resistance amid the war on Gaza, exemplified by its Truthful Promise retaliatory strikes against Israel, have served to strengthen Iranian soft power and mobilising support for the state.

While external alliances are crucial, Iran’s future stability will also depend on its ability to address domestic challenges. Economic hardship remains a pressing issue, no doubt exacerbated by sanctions, but also corruption and mismanagement. The new leadership will need to implement effective economic reforms and manage public discontent to maintain internal stability.

Historical precedents suggest that the Islamic Republic is likely to survive this latest crisis; it does not mean the path ahead would be smooth sailing. The likely continuation of Raisi’s policies under his eventual successor, particularly the strengthening of ties with China and Russia, will be crucial in shaping Iran’s strategic direction. However, addressing internal challenges and fostering the ideological underpinnings of the state for the next generation will be equally important for ensuring Iran’s long-term stability and resilience.

Iran’s diplomatic drive: Raisi’s focus on the Global South

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.