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The Supreme Leader Runs Iran, Ebrahim Raisi’s Death Won’t Impact Policy Fronts

The whole system is actually structured to support the mullahocracy led by the Ayatollah, currently Ali Khamenei.

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The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is a double blow to the governing elite.

The 63-year-old hard-liner was deeply loyal to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and there was talk that he was being groomed to succeed the 85-year-old Supreme Leader. Now, the mullah elite will be forced to grapple with two successions.

Systemically, there is no problem as First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber is now the interim President, till Iran holds presidential elections, within the next 50 days.

But hale and hearty, Raisi had planned to contest for a second term next June. So, as of now, he would not have groomed any successor.

Even so, his death is unlikely to have any impact on the domestic and foreign policy fronts, where the decisions are ultimately taken by the Supreme Leader.

Elections in the Iranian political system do not make the country a democracy.

The president of Iran and the Parliament both go through a process of elections, but the whole system is actually structured to support the mullahocracy, led by the Supreme Leader.

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Supreme Leader Is Effectively Head of State

The system, frankly, is theocratic and as per the Shia Twelver belief, the Supreme Leader is seen as the guardian and upholder of Islamic law till the reappearance of the 12th Imam before Judgment Day.

The constitution of the country sees this as a kind of guardianship for jurists, most of whom happen to be the mullahs. Elections take place and people vote, but the slate of candidates is vetted by a council dominated by the mullahs.

At the top of the system is, of course, the Supreme Leader who has a veto on virtually everything. He is elected for life by an Assembly of Experts, a group of 88 top clergymen, who are elected once in eight years through direct voting.

He is not merely the head of state and the top religious leader, but also effectively the head of the government.

The legislature has two wings – the lower house or the Consultative Assembly and the upper house or the Guardian Council. The Assembly is like a regular Parliament with legislators elected by popular vote through secret ballot.

The Guardian Council has 12 members, of which half are from the clergy, chosen by the Supreme Leader, and the other half are jurists chosen by the Assembly.

The Guardian Council has a veto on all legislations and importantly, it also approves the list of people who can contest for the presidential, parliamentary, and Assembly of Experts elections.

In addition, there is the powerful Expediency Council of some 30-40 people chosen by the Supreme Leader to assist him in managing the system.

This system rests its ultimate authority on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is a parallel and more powerful organisation than the Iranian military. It has its own army, navy, and aerospace wings, and it has extensive business interests and serves as the stormtroopers of the clergy.

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Under Raisi, a Conservative Twist in Iran

In the 45 years since the Islamic Revolution, the mullahs have ruled with a degree of pragmatism. The Guardian Council has been careful to ensure that the elections provide genuine options for voters.

As a result, Iran has had centrist presidents like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), and even the reformist Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), all of whom have bested conservatives in their elections.

Raisi was defeated in the 2017 elections by Hassan Rouhani, who was also a cleric, but a moderate one who negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme in 2015, and had the sanctions on Iran lifted.

Though Iran kept its part of the deal, the sanctions were re-established by President Trump in 2019 in a campaign of “maximum pressure” to bend Iran to America's will.

As a result, Raisi won the 2021 elections but with considerable help from the Guardian Council which disqualified a large number of other candidates, and in any case, the voter turnout was less than 50 percent, the lowest since the 1979 revolution.

Under Raisi, the Iranian government took a conservative twist. Though Iran’s economy has been resilient in the face of US sanctions, the standards of living have not recovered to the levels before Trump's sanctions.

Western sanctions, government mismanagement, and corruption severely hobbled the Iranian economy which continues to be dogged by high inflation.

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India Has Big Stakes in a Moderate and Pragmatic Iranian State

The country was wracked with domestic political turbulence following the 2022 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested for not covering her head with a hijab.

Over 500 protestors were killed in the unprecedented crackdown by the authorities, with hundreds jailed and disappeared. Thereafter, the mullah regime doubled down on conservative social policies and restrictions, especially on women.

Since then, the conservatives have tightened their hold and they swept the elections to the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts in March this year. But only 25 million of 61 million eligible voters cast their vote and the turnout at 41 per cent was the lowest since the 1979 revolution.

In Tehran, the turnout was as low as 24 per cent. As usual, the Guardian Council had winnowed the field and removed prominent reformists and centrists in both races. This, in turn, led to a reformist boycott of the vote. Even former President Rouhani was barred from contesting the Assembly of Experts election.

In the face of Western pressure, Rouhani moved Tehran towards deepening ties with China and Russia. Raisi doubled down on this policy and supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by Iran’s supply of the Shahed drones. While Chinese oil purchases are enabling it to keep its head above water, its overall economic condition continues to be dire.

Given its size and oil resources, Iran can be a true big power in the Middle East. But under the leadership of the conservative mullahs, it has chosen to live dangerously, seeking the path of domestic repression and running a covert war against the US, Israel, and various Arab countries across the Middle East through its proxies.

In January Iran bombed Pakistan and Iraq ostensibly to avenge terror strikes. But in 2023, with the help of China, Iran had rebuilt its relations with its Persian Gulf neighbours and entered the BRICS as a member and the SCO as an observer.

But more recently and dangerously, it almost got into a direct conflict with the US and Israel. Following the deaths of some IRGC leaders in an Israeli attack on the embassy in Damascus, Iran unleashed a massive missile and drone attack on Israel in April.

India has big stakes in a moderate and prosperous Iran, both as a market and a destination for its investments. It was a major purchaser of its oil and was working to import natural gas from there as well. But American sanctions have all but ended the oil trade.

In 2016, India had announced its intention to invest in the Chabahar Port which would help it bypass the Pakistani blockade of Central Asia, but US sanctions led to New Delhi slowing down its commitments.

But by its recent decision to manage the Chabahar Port for the next 10 years, India has signalled that it wants to retain its Iran option for the day when the government there becomes more moderate and pragmatic.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Iran   Ebrahim Raisi 

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