Raisi had built Iran as a key player in Middle East

Responses of major powers to the demise of President Raisi of Iran give an idea of the geopolitical scene around the Middle East and the power play that was evident in the region, writes D.C. Pathak

Reactions of the world community to the demise of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and some other Iranian dignitaries in a helicopter crash near the Azerbaijan border on May 19, threw light on the importance of Iran as a prime mover behind the recent developments in the Middle East and the geopolitical alignments that are shaping up in the region around the increasing polarisation between the US on one hand and the Russia-China axis on the other. 

Raisi a hardliner conservative was appointed President of Iran in 2021 — he had earlier succeeded over his pragmatic rival Hassan Rouhani in 2017 in a controlled election.

He soon became the driving power behind the execution of thousands of dissidents at home in 2022, the enforcement of strict rules of the Hijab and Chastity for women and the pursuit of a strong anti-Israel policy.

Raisi was very close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme leader of Shiite Iran — who at 85 was not keeping well — and was set to succeed the latter. Raisi as a leader had been put by the US under sanction.

Born in a religious family in the Shiite Muslim city of Mashhad, the Iranian President was educated at a religious seminary in the holy city of Qom and was known to have taken part as a student in the protests against the pro-West Shah of Iran in 1979.

Raisi shared with Khamenei a deep antipathy towards the US — part of this being rooted in the ideological rejection of capitalism by the fundamentalist Shiism.

He was an anti-corruption populist who stood for self-sufficiency in the economy and an aggressive foreign policy based on the strategy of using proxy forces across the Middle East.

An advisor of the Iranian regime made it clear that the policy framework of Iran would be maintained after President Raisi’s death.

Iran with the largest army in the Middle East is likely to continue with an assertive posture in the region and beyond in the geopolitical environment created by the Ukraine-Russia military confrontation and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Raisi pursued a hard line towards Israel and warned that any Israeli aggression against Iran could result in “there being nothing left of the Zionist regime”.

Iran-Israel hostility arises significantly from a faith-based contradiction that added to the political enmity Iran had towards the US-Israel axis. In the polarisation between the US and the China-Russia combine, Iran unsurprisingly supports the latter.

In the long-drawn Ukraine-Russia military confrontation, Iran has actively sided with Russia’s ‘war effort’ by supplying drones for the Russian offensive against Ukraine.

Iran’s comprehensive backing of Hamas against Israel is as much of an aggressive stand against the US as it is a reflection of the basic religious divide between Islam and Zionism.

Hamas had been radicalised and its attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, was clearly a terrorist act — radicalisation goes with the ‘revivalist’ call of the Wahhabis to return of Muslim world to the Puritan Islam of the ‘Pious Caliphs’ and in the process it would also turn intensely hostile to Shiites because of the historical memory associated with the origin of Shiism as a ‘deviant’ sect in the eyes of the mainstream Sunnis.

In regard to the Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan however, it is said that Pakistan had helped to bring about an adjustment between China and the Taliban on the basis of a ‘give and take’ that enabled China to extend its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) to Afghanistan and got Taliban to give an assurance of non-interference in the affairs of the Muslim minorities of China.

The reported participation of Taliban leaders of Afghanistan in the last prayers for Raisi in Tehran showed the primacy of the political opposition to the US that put Iran and the Taliban on the same side of the fence.

Iran’s political and ideological hostility towards Israel at the same time, led it to support Hamas and set upon its proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis against Israel in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Responses of major powers to the demise of President Raisi of Iran give an idea of the geopolitical scene around the Middle East and the power play that was evident in the region.

President Xi Jinping of China called the ‘tragic death’ of Raisi a great loss to the Iranian people and added that the Chinese people had lost a good friend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offering condolences on the demise of the Iranian President lauded his role in strengthening mutually beneficial Russia-Iran cooperation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Raisi an outstanding political leader who had made invaluable personal contributions in taking good neighbourly relations between Russia and Iran to the level of a ‘strategic partnership’.

The US conveyed ‘official condolences’ to Iran and reiterated its support to the Iranian people in their ‘struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms’. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin clarified that the US had no insight into the cause of the helicopter crash that killed President Raisi.

The EU expressed sincere condolences while Italy’s Prime Minister Georgia Meloni noted that the crash was looked upon as an accident and no conspiracy theories had cropped up. She felt there would be no change in Iran’s internal order and hoped that the future leadership would work for the ‘stabilisation and pacification’ of Iran.

There was a report that Putin had offered to help Iran in the process of enquiry into the helicopter crash. These reactions amply showed the closeness Iran had developed towards Russia and China while a distinct lack of trust existed between Iran and the US-led West.

Johannesburg: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President of Iran Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi during a meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit, in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Photo: IANS/Twitter/@MEAIndia)

The Arab states in the region conveyed their condolences to the people of Iran — considering them more as part of Ummah and rising above the Shia-Sunni divide somewhat — which certainly reflected their desire to keep the Middle East free of violence and check radicalisation.

Saudi Arabia had tense relations with Iran and there were proxy conflicts between them. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman however, called Iran’s Acting President Mokhber to express his condolences.

UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohd. Bin Rashid Al Maktoum told the people of Iran “our hearts are with you in this difficult time” and more in line with the Islamic Brotherhood sentiment expressed that “the deceased would dwell in God’s spacious Paradise”.

Jordan’s King Abdullah conveying his deepest condolences expressed Jordan’s solidarity with “our brothers in Islam” of Iran while Emir Sheikh of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani expressed his condolences to the people of Iran saying “we belong to Allah and to Him we shall return”.

Egyptian President Abdul Fateh Al Sisi expressed solidarity with the Iranian leadership and people on the terrible incident that caused the death of the Iranian President and other leaders.

It is relevant to mention that the US had since 2020 mediated to bring about the Abraham Accord between UAE and Israel with the concurrence of Saudi Arabia and that China took a similar initiative in 2023 to secure the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two big powers were apparently trying to strengthen their foothold in the Middle East without precipitating any serious conflict.

Outside the region, it is important to note the reactions of Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey — countries that have lately shown a marked convergence on accommodating Islamic radical forces and correspondingly striking a posture of independence towards the US.

Beijing: Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with visiting President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing on Tuesday,Feb. 14, 2023. (Xinhua/IANS)

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif recalled the ‘historic’ visit of Iranian President Raisi to Islamabad a month ago, described Iran as a good friend of Pakistan and announced a day of mourning during which Pak flags would fly half-mast as a mark of respect and solidarity with ‘brotherly’ Iran.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia praised President Raisi for his dedication to “justice, peace and upliftment of the Ummah” and said that good Malaysia-Iran relations would lead to the “betterment of Muslim world”.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan at a joint press conference with his Pak counterpart at Islamabad, expressed his condolences and gave credit to Raisi for building good Iran-Ankara relations.

Iran under Raisi’s presidency had apparently reached out to potential friends in the Muslim world who would be sympathetic towards Iran in the latter’s tussle against the US.

Also, since both Iran and Saudi Arabia are members of the OPEC, the world powers were compelled to keep the Middle East from serious conflicts for their economic interests. However, the two major players in the region, Iran and Israel with their differing alignments in the developing Cold War between the US-led West and the Russia-China axis, are likely to continue with their adversarial postures — a close vigil by the international community on the Middle East seemed necessary.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first to convey his condolences on a personal note saying that he was “deeply saddened and shocked” over Raisi’s death. He stated that Raisi’s contribution to the strengthening of bilateral Iran-India relations will always be remembered and added that “India stood with Iran in this time of sorrow”.

India has done well to independently maintain friendship with the three major players in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran. This is consistent with India’s foreign policy of building mutually beneficial bilateral friendships with the US and Russia without prejudicing the cause of world peace.

This is how Prime Minister Modi had reached out to the Presidents of both Russia and Ukraine at the outbreak of military conflict between them and advocated for cessation of hostilities and peaceful negotiations based on an understanding of the ‘security concerns of both sides’.

This independent stand won the approval of the international community and brought recognition to India as the promoter of the ‘sane voice’ of the world. This has enabled India to maintain strategic friendship with the US without giving up on the deep political and economic relations with Russia. There is little doubt that India’s handling of international relations has been a success story so far.

(The writer is a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau. Views are personal)

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