Will the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi affect India-Iran relations?

Ronit Kawale
Ronit Kawale - Senior Editor
8 Min Read

Amid the ongoing conflict in West Asia, Iran's President Ibrahim Raisi has died in a dramatic helicopter crash in the country's East Azerbaijan province. The 63-year-old hardline president, who took office in 2021, was widely considered the successor to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now his untimely death has thrown into disarray the succession plans of the country's most powerful leader, who runs an ultra-conservative regime.

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Raisi was a staunch ally of Khamenei and considered his disciple. However, his popularity has also declined in recent times, as his economic mismanagement has been compounded by his ineffectiveness in dealing with US sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Raisi's death will increase unrest in the area or not. Israel has reportedly denied any role in the accident and Tehran has so far not alleged any foul play.

now what

Raisi's death comes at a time when Iran is facing increasing scrutiny from the West, not only over its nuclear program but also due to its growing military ties with Russia, internal strife, and disillusionment among its people with the electoral process. This is evident in the extremely low voter turnout in the recent Majlis elections and its role in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Iran launched a direct and unprecedented attack on Israel last month after an Israeli attack on an Iranian compound in Syria. Several commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were killed in the attack on an Iranian compound in Syria. In response, Iran bombarded Israel with missiles and rockets. Israel also responded, but not with enough intensity to provoke Iran to retaliate.

Apart from bringing the long-running shadow war between Iran and Israel to the public eye, China’s mediation during Raisi’s tenure also helped normalise relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

According to the Iranian Constitution, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhbar will take over as interim president. With the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's Guardian Council will hold elections within the next 50 days to find Raisi's permanent successor.

Mokhber has a degree in international law and has played a key role in helping Iran avoid sanctions on its oil industry. Continuity can be expected in Iran's foreign policy and its regional priorities as these are in any case decided and directed by the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard.

It comes as no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first foreign leaders to speak to Mokhber and reaffirm his commitment to deepening ties with Iran.

No chance of obstruction

Khamenei has assured the Iranian people that there will be no disruption in the functioning of the country. The same will apply to Iran's relations with India, which Raisi worked to promote under his predecessor Hassan Rouhani. After Raisi's death was confirmed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed solidarity with the Iranian people, recalling his contribution to strengthening bilateral ties with India. India also declared a day of national mourning for Raisi.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar also expressed similar sentiments for his counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdullahian, who died along with the President in the crash. Jaishankar had held talks with the Iranian minister during his visit to Tehran in January this year. PM Modi posted on Instagram, 'Deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic demise of Dr. Syed Ibrahim Raisi, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His contribution in strengthening India-Iran bilateral relations will always be remembered. My heartfelt condolences to his family and the people of Iran. India stands with Iran in this hour of grief.

India–Iran Relations

Even though India's ties with the US have deepened, India's relations with Iran still remain at the same level. Raisi took over as president in 2021 and during this time there was no bilateral visit between the two leaders, but Modi and Raisi met during the BRICS and SCO summits and reiterated their commitment to enhance cooperation in areas such as trade, connectivity, combating terrorism and people-to-people contact.

India and Iran earlier this month signed a long-term contract to further equip and operate a terminal at the strategic Chabahar port. This is in line with the desire of both leaders to utilize the full potential of the port, allowing India to access Central Asia and Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan.

Located in Sistan-Baluchistan province on the southern coast of energy-rich Iran, Chabahar Port in the Gulf of Oman is a deep-water port located in the open sea, providing easy and safe access for large ships.

India risks US sanctions to sign 10-year Chabahar port deal with Iran. Modi last met Raisi in August 2023 during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. The two leaders discussed ways to strengthen bilateral cooperation in various areas including trade and investment, connectivity, energy and counter-terrorism. Five other countries including Iran had joined the group in that summit. Raisi had congratulated PM Modi on the success of Chandrayaan mission and thanked him for India's support for Iran's BRICS membership. As the war in Gaza flares up, India continued high-level exchanges with Iran, reinforcing its balanced approach towards the Israel-Hamas conflict. In line with the ongoing exchanges, Jaishankar visited Iran in January this year for talks with Abdullahian.

Raisi was trying to further enhance engagement with India at Chabahar port. He and PM Modi wanted to strengthen cooperation to realize the full potential of Chabahar port as a connectivity hub. Apart from focusing on connectivity initiatives, India and Iran have also worked to enhance political cooperation and stronger people-to-people ties in recent times.

In their meeting held in August, they had decided to increase cooperation on infrastructure, including the Chabahar project. The leaders also exchanged views on regional developments, including Afghanistan, where both countries are working to ensure that the Taliban does not allow terrorist groups to target either country.

Raisi spoke to Modi again on phone in November and stressed the need for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. In December, India voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

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