India hopes Chabahar will go through as Iran looks for Raisi successor
Raisi was widely speculated as the most suitable leader to replace his mentor and Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his death. File photo

India hopes Chabahar will go through as Iran looks for Raisi successor

Questions have been raised about India’s future stakes in Iran in the event of further tensions affecting the country and American sanctions on nations doing business with Iran.

The focus of the world has been on Iran since its President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter accident on May 19. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several other officials travelling with the Raisi also died in the crash.

Since the state funeral is now over, the focus of global commentators has been on the outcome of the June 28 presidential election that will choose Raisi’s successor.

Indications suggest the new President of the Republic will also be a conservative, hand-picked by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Raisi’s iron grip on Iran

Under Raisi’s presidency, Iran adopted increased militarisation and faced prolonged phases of tumult at home, especially from women and liberals demanding more political and social freedom.

His death came amid Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza and rising tension between Israel and Iran, raising the spectre of a wider conflict in West Asia.

The President’s death has also come in the wake of an important agreement signed between India and Iran to allow New Delhi extended access and use of an important terminal in the Iranian Chabahar Port.

Questions have been raised about India’s future stakes in Iran in the event of further tensions affecting the country and American sanctions on nations doing business with Iran.

Raisi was a student of Khamenei and had strong links with the conservatives in the judiciary and religious elite. He came into prominence for executing thousands of leftists and other dissenters as the chief prosecutor of Tehran.

Iran may need a ‘supreme leader’ too

He was the Chief Justice of Iran before becoming President. Though discussions on succession remain a taboo in Iran, Raisi was widely speculated as the most suitable leader to replace Khamenei on his death.

Khamenei is 85 years old and though officially he seems to be in good health, reports suggest that he has been battling ill health for more than a decade.

However, Raisi’s sudden death has left Iran grappling with the task of not only looking for a new President but also perhaps for someone who can be groomed to be the next Supreme Leader.

In the Iranian political structure, the Supreme Leader sets the Islamic Republic’s overall policies and controls key institutions, including the military forces.

The President also has a lot of power as he controls a vast bureaucracy and budget that gives him the levers to shape Khamenei’s programmes but also to delay, challenge or sabotage them.

No room for moderates

As an elected leader the President also enjoys more legitimacy than the other religious leaders, who are mostly nominated by the Supreme Leader.

Observers say the Supreme Leader has spent nearly three decades in a tussle with moderate Presidents who favoured more political freedom and improved ties with the west, particularly the US.

The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the US under Barack Obama’s initiative was a move for a rapprochement between Teheran and Washington. The agreement was seen as a victory for the moderate sections in Iran.

Therefore, when Donald Trump as America’s president withdrew from the deal, it was cheered not only by conservatives in the US and Israel but also Khamenei and his supporters as it allowed the Supreme Leader to marginalise the incumbent president Rouhani and other liberals in the establishment.

Raisi toed Khamenei line

Raisi’s election in 2021 took place after Khamenei and his supporters in the Guardian’s Council, which constitutionally has the right to whet presidential candidates, successfully struck off names of all the moderate candidates.

Despite the effort, Raisi managed to win in an election where the turnout of voters was only 49 per cent, the lowest in the Republic’s history. It was a clear indication that voters were growing dissatisfied with Khamenei’s manipulation to ensure his protégé’s victory.

Khamenei always preferred to keep ties with the US on the boil, while strengthening relations with neighbours in the region and those in Asia.

To deal with the crippling western sanctions imposed by the US and European countries, Raisi began implementing Khamenei’s policy of improving relations with Iran's neighbours in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and also with China, Russia and other countries to look for alternative sources of investment and trade.

Increased militarisation

But in the process, he also allowed the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which traditionally worked in close consultation with the President’s office and pursued an independent policy from Khamenei’s, to align with the Supreme Leader’s close ally – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Iran has now adopted a more militant stand to deal with Israel and the US than in the past and continues to harass the two countries through its proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and the Hamas in Gaza.

Though the US is in informal engagement with Iranian officials via Qatar and Oman, there is a growing view among Iran-watchers that its next President will be a conservative one and the Supreme Leader will leave no room for moderates to regroup.

Khamenei has assured that the transition period will be smooth and there will be no instability in Iran.

India’s stake in Iran

But like many others, India will also keep a keen eye to safeguard its investments and assets in Iran.

The new agreement signed recently by India, gives it the right to invest and operate the Shahid-Behesti terminal of the Chabahar Port for another 10 years. It has often been showcased as a key investment of India in Iran.

The Chabahar Port is a key element of India’s North-South Transport Corridor that allows it to link with Central Asia and Russia, bypassing Pakistan.

The fact that the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan has also shown interest in the port with a USD 300 million investment shows that Kabul is also trying to look for other options than the Karachi and Gwadar port—which is now part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The US laws allow America to impose sanctions on countries doing business with Iran.

But some Indian experts are hopeful that the US will be able to look at the Indian investment in Chabahar Port as an alternative to China’s multi-billion-dollar connectivity project the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and something that may be of interest to America in the long run.

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