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Iran’s internal political balance at stake

Supreme Leader and advisers set to keep foreign policy operational after Raisi’s death

Iran’s internal political balance at stake

TRAGIC END: Ebrahim Raisi was being talked about as the Supreme Leader’s successor. Reuters

KC Singh

Former Ambassador to Iran and Ex-Secretary, MEA

IRANIAN President Ebrahim Raisi’s tragic death is untimely for Iran as it confronts Israel, and by proxy the US, in the wake of the October 7 massacre by the Hamas in Israeli settlements.

With Afghanistan under Taliban rule and Iran goading its proxies to fight Israel, the Americans may be less willing than in the past to exempt India from sanctions.

Iran is allegedly the Hamas’ financier, arms supplier and abettor. Other Iran-aligned armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, especially Hezbollah, are seen as complicit. Iran launched its first-ever direct missile and drone attack on Israel on April 13. The provocation was the Israeli bombing of an Iranian diplomatic complex in Damascus that killed some Iranian military commanders who were coordinating Iran’s clandestine activities in West Asia.

During the Barack Obama presidency, the US opted for engaging with Iran to control its nuclear programme and strategic reach over the Shia crescent, running from Iran via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. The 2015 nuclear deal was struck between Iran and P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. However, then President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018, imposing sanctions instead. Simultaneously, he worsened America’s pro-Israel tilt, shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem without obtaining Israeli commitment to curb settlements in the occupied West Bank or a two-state solution.

President Joe Biden tried to recalibrate this policy, but was first distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic and then the Ukraine war. Meanwhile, the US envisioned a new West Asia and Gulf security paradigm, utilising the Abraham Accords signed during the Trump presidency. Pro-US Arab nations like the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia were encouraged to normalise relations with Israel. The aim was to contain Iran and its deep political linkages in West Asia. But the danger posed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government, with extreme right-wing parties advocating Palestinian marginalisation, was ignored. Netanyahu argued that Palestinians had ceased to matter in regional geopolitics.

Based on this new vision, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) was proposed. The leaders of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, US and India met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi for its high-profile launch. But the Israeli PM, in whose country the Adani-owned Haifa port was the land route’s termination point, was absent. Clearly, the Saudis had resisted signing the Abraham Accords without Israeli commitment to resolve the Palestinian issue.

Less than a year later, the Iran-provoked Gaza crisis has upended the IMEC project. Even signatories to the Abraham Accords like the UAE and Bahrain are compelled to toughen their public posture against Israel to satisfy domestic public opinion and the Arab Street’s ire.

Having sabotaged the US-Israeli plans, Iran has moved closer to the Russia-China combine. This convergence challenges America’s global hegemony and the existing global order. Iran has become a major supplier of armed drones to Russia, threatening to make tanks and artillery redundant. The recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to China, his first foray abroad after winning a fresh six-year term, underscores the new geopolitical realignment.

Raisi was in the third year of his four-year term. As a former head of the Iranian judiciary, a position with more authority than chief justices in democratic nations, he had a blood-tainted past. He oversaw the mass execution of political prisoners in the 1980s. His election in 2021 was less free than usual Iranian presidential elections. Traditionally, the Supreme Leader and his advisers use the Guardian Council to prune the list of candidates. In the past, this was done shrewdly to provide the people some sense of choice and electoral freedom. When Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997, he was an acknowledged reformist who beat the regime-favoured conservatives. This was abandoned in 2021 amid rising public disenchantment due to economic distress caused by Western sanctions. Later, young Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody in September 2022 ignited widespread protests, especially by women. With the regime’s moral authority damaged, the 2021 voting percentage dropped to 49 per cent from 60 per cent or above earlier. In fact, voters protested by casting damaged votes, numbering 13 per cent of the total. This was higher even than the votes received by Raisi’s opponents.

Raisi was being talked about as the current Supreme Leader’s successor, who is old and a cancer survivor. A new presidential election must now be held in 50 days. The challenge is to select a conservative who is young, trusted by the Supreme Leader and loyal to the regime’s core religious conservatism.

How does this impact India-Iran relations? Both nations value strategic independence but have compulsions limiting their legroom. India cannot provoke the US excessively by its dalliance with nations like Iran, which are challenging US dominance in the Gulf and West Asia. Iran needs China as a market for its oil and a supplier of dual-use products for its defence and nuclear programmes. It also needs Russia to balance dependence on China and as an export market for its defence products, at least till the Ukraine war continues. India-Iran trade last year was $1.39 billion, falling from a high of $3.38 billion in 2019-20. The reduction in oil imports and the Chinese dominance of the Iranian domestic market were contributory factors.

The Chabahar port has been the talisman of bilateral relations. After the recent 10-year deal to develop the port, the US issued a warning of imminent sanctions. With Afghanistan under Taliban rule and Iran goading its proxies to fight Israel, the Americans may be less willing than in the past to exempt India.

The Indo-Iranian strategic convergence was the closest during 1996-2001, when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Both backed the Northern Alliance of Ahmad Shah Massoud. But since 2003, when the Iranian clandestine nuclear programme was revealed and US as well as Western sanctions followed, India began negotiating a nuclear deal with the US. Since then, relations between the two have fluctuated between strategic suspicion and transactional forbearance.

Raisi’s death will not alter these fundamental factors. In any case, the Supreme Leader and the advisers in the Supreme National Security Council, especially its secretary general Ali Akbar Ahmadian, will keep foreign policy operational. But his death could affect Iran’s internal political balance as jockeying begins to fill the power vacuum. 

#Afghanistan #Hamas #Israel #Taliban

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