Meet the New Boss/ Same as the Old Boss

by | May 30, 2024 | Editorial and Analysis, World News

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Ten days ago, a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and other key Iranian officials, crashed in the mountains of northern Iran, killing all on board and casting uncertainty on the immediate future of Iranian politics. One thing is certain: radical change is unlikely.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, a couple of conspiracy theories quickly began making the rounds in Iran: it was the Israelis, who seem to be able to kill Iranian and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leaders at will… no, it was political rivals, perhaps even the son of the Supreme Leader, 55-year-old Mojtaba Khamenei, as he and Raisi both were said to be jockeying to replace the 85-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The first theory deflates the self-proclaimed invincibility of the state and brings into question the theocracy’s ability to defend itself or its leadership. The second theory points to the political infighting that is a hallmark of unstable regimes. The most likely cause of the crash is that Iran is a third-rate authoritarian state hamstrung by aging hardware, slack safety procedures, and shoddy maintenance.

The U.S. Department of State, the United Nations, and even NATO released tone-deaf messages of condolence to the people of Iran, even as those same people of Iran celebrated with fireworks the death of the man commonly referred to as “the Butcher of Tehran.”

Make no mistake. Raisi was not a man to be mourned. In the 1980s, Raisi was instrumental in the execution of as many as 5,000 dissidents, for which the United Nations accused him of crimes against humanity. After serving as a jurist in increasingly powerful roles, Raisi was elected president in 2021in an election believed to be heavily influenced, if not rigged, by the Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei. Upon assuming power, Raisi quickly worked to overturn any modest reforms made by his predecessor, moving Iran in a more conservative direction, and taking a more hardline approach to the United States.

Domestically, Raisi cracked down on protestors following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested in September 2022 for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly in public. Thousands took to the streets in protest and to march in solidarity with the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. Raisi authorized a brutal response, resulting in thousands of arrests and nearly 500 deaths at the hands of police within the first three months following Amini’s death. According to Amnesty International, Iran executed at least 853 people last year. While more than half of those executed had been arrested on drug charges, at least half a dozen were Woman, Life, Freedom protestors detained in 2022. Additionally, two people were executed for “apostasy” and “insulting the Prophet of Islam” in their social media posts.

Under Raisi, Iran provided direct support to Russia in its ongoing war against Ukraine, supplying more than 2,000 Shahed kamikaze drones and assisting in establishing a plant in Russia for the manufacture of the drones. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran also had provided more than 300,000 artillery shells and one million rounds of ammunition to Russia, and U.S. intelligence officials alleged last December that Iran was considering supplying Russia with Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs).

Additionally, during Raisi’s tenure, Iran ramped up its attacks on U.S. military personnel and Israel through its regional proxies—militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, not to mention its support of Hamas. As a result, three American soldiers in the region have been killed and dozens wounded.

At Iran’s behest, the Houthis in Yemen have launched drones and missiles aimed at Israel and conducted more than 40 attacks on commercial merchant vessels, as well as U.S. and British warships, transiting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Houthis succeeded in killing three merchant seamen and injuring four others during an attack in March. The sailors’ blood is not only on the hands of the Houthis but on Iran’s and Raisi’s hands as well. The ship in question was not Israeli, American, or British; rather, the M/V True Confidence was Barbados-flagged and Liberian-owned.

Of course, Raisi also approved the direct drone and missile attack on Israel in mid-April of this year that saw a barrage of more than 120 ballistic missiles, 30 cruise missiles, and approximately 170 drones aimed at the Jewish state, marking a new willingness by Iran to carry out attacks itself rather than relying on proxies and hiding behind the thin veil of “plausible deniability.”

Mourners hold up a posters of the late Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the mam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, May 21, 2024 during a funeral ceremony for him and his companions who were killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday in a mountainous region of the country’s northwest. Mourners in black began gathering Tuesday for days of funerals and processions for Iran’s late president, foreign minister and others killed in a helicopter crash, a government-led series of ceremonies aimed at both honoring the dead and projecting strength in an unsettled Middle East. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

With Raisi now gone, what does the immediate future hold for Iran and the wider Middle East? On Monday, Iran’s acting president, First Vice President Mohammed Mokhber, made his first public remarks since Raisi’s death. Mokhber praised Raisi’s tenure in office, pointing to an increase in Iran’s oil production, a stable economy, and Iran’s attacks on Pakistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Israel. “This strength, this settlement, and this power is not a usual thing, they all were because of guidance by the Supreme Leader and the sincere efforts of Ayatollah Raisi,” Mokhber said.

On the same day, Nasser Kanaani, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that, despite the recent death of Raisi, Iran would continue to support “the oppressed people of Palestine and resistance groups (pursuing) the unalienable rights of the Palestinians to the liberation of their land and standing against the usurping Zionist regime.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the newly-elected Iranian parliament reelected its hardline speaker, former IRGC General Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, underscoring its hard-right stance. Apparently, the more things change in Iran, the more they stay the same.

Beginning today, May 30, a five-day registration period for presidential candidates will open. The presidential election will be held on June 28.

No matter whom Iran elects as its next president, the current hardline political environment suggests that things will remain much the same in the Islamic Republic. Few political observers expect a moderate candidate to succeed, and some have suggested that the IRGC may take advantage of the situation to strengthen its position in the theocracy, where the real power lies not with the president but with the Supreme Leader.

As The Who sang in its anthemic Won’t Get Fooled Again, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

 

Captain Scott Rye, USN (Ret.), is a former correspondent for Daily Shipping Guide, the former long-time editor of Alabama Seaport magazine, and the author of Of Men & Ships: The Best Sea Tales and Men & Ships of the Civil War.

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