Iran's loss is a turning point for the Middle East

It is a measure of Tehran's strategic importance that those who value stability in the region will be watching closely to see what happens next

A picture of the late President Ebrahim Raisi is seen on a street in Tehran on Monday. The full impact of his sudden death, along with that of other senior Iranian political figures in a helicopter crash, will only be understood days or months from now. Reuters
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When reports emerged on Sunday afternoon that a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and other Iranian figures made a “hard landing” due to heavy fog while travelling from Azerbaijan to the north-western city of Tabriz, many were understandably concerned about the fate of those on board. Sadly, the worst-case scenario has come to pass.

For any country to lose its president and foreign minister in a single incident would be a major blow. When that country is as consequential for the Middle East as Iran, such a loss is an abrupt and unforeseen injection of further uncertainty in a region that is already in the grip of considerable turmoil.

Offers to help find Mr Raisi and his companions came swiftly from many Arab countries as well as Russia, Turkey and China. The EU offered its Copernicus rapid response satellite mapping service to help find the crash site. When news of Mr Raisi’s death was confirmed, condolences followed swiftly.

President Sheikh Mohamed extended his sympathies to the Iranian government and people, and said the UAE stands in solidarity. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic demise” of Mr Raisi. The leaders of Qatar and Iraq also expressed their condolences, as did Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who described Mr Raisi and Mr Amirabdollahian as “true and reliable friends of our country”.

Personal relationships are important in international diplomacy, and many leading figures will have had experience of dealing with Mr Raisi and Mr Amirabdollahian on a one-to-one basis. Those relationships have been abruptly cut short.

Nevertheless, Iran, despite foreign and domestic challenges, has clear mechanisms in place for Mr Raisi’s succession; Vice President Mohammad Mokhber has been announced as interim president, providing a measure of continuity. Still, uncertainty looms: an election for a new president must be arranged within 50 days. Elections held in Iran earlier this year amid deep social polarisation saw a record low turnout despite calls from the country’s leadership for citizens to have their say. This is nothing to say of the jockeying for power and influence that will take place among the country’s various factions in the weeks and months ahead.

The full impact of these sudden deaths in north-western Iran will only be understood days or months from now. What is certain, however, is that they will be consequential in critical diplomatic and economic issues, such as Iran’s involvement in international talks regarding its nuclear programme. It is a measure of Iran’s strategic importance that those who value stability in the Middle East will be watching closely to see what happens next.

Published: May 21, 2024, 3:00 AM