Hardline 'Butcher of Tehran' Ebrahim Raisi's death opens door for escalating Iran-West confrontation

20 May 2024, 17:45 | Updated: 20 May 2024, 17:49

Hardline 'Butcher of Tehran' Ebrahim Raisi's death opens door for escalating Iran-West confrontation
Hardline 'Butcher of Tehran' Ebrahim Raisi's death opens door for escalating Iran-West confrontation. Picture: Alamy
  • Barak Seener is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and the founder of Strategic Intelligentia and the Gulf Futures Forum.

By Barak Seener

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash on Sunday in the mountain valleys of Dizmar forest near the border with Azerbaijan.

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Several other dignitaries also lost their lives, including Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

Raisi was nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Tehran’. In 1988, he oversaw the mass executions of thousands of opposition members.

In 2022, after the authorities murdered Mahsa Amini while she was in detention for refusing to wear a hijab, Raisi led the nationwide crackdown on the emerging resistance - killing more than 500 people, and detaining over 22,000.

It was not only domestically that President Raisi’s authoritarianism was manifest. In foreign policy too, his hardline approach was on display. He pushed Iran to achieve nuclear status, frequently preventing international inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

This led him to decry US-led Iranian sanctions at the United Nations in September 2021 where he exclaimed, “The policy of ‘maximum oppression’ is still on. We want nothing more than what is rightfully ours.”

It was his willingness to oppose US power that led Supreme Leader Khamenei to groom Ebrahim Raisi as his successor.

He was hoping for a seamless transition. Everything is now up in the air.

The death of Iran’s President happens at a time when Iran upped the ante from its long-standing shadow-war with Israel by launching a direct attack from its soil against Israel.

Despite no evidence of foul play, rumours are abounding as to whether Israel’s Mossad or the US’s CIA were involved in the helicopter crash.

Such conspiracies are certain to inform Iran’s debates on succession. Regime hardliners that seek the apocalyptic return of the final Mahdi will use Raisi’s death to exhort greater confrontation with the West.

This would be in line with them advocating that Iran reach nuclear status.

As a result, Iran’s hardline political culture makes it likely for another candidate with Raisi’s shared worldview to take his place.

The battle for succession inside Iran will have ripple effects outside the country. It will create greater regional instability and might lead to increased attacks by Iranian proxies. Conversely, it may also be exploited by the US and Israel to destabilise the regime in Tehran.

Now could be the time to strike Iranian nuclear facilities and target Iranian proxies in a bid to reconstitute deterrence against Iran.

The shadow war between Iran and Israel is primed to continue.

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