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Ebrahim Raisi’s unexpected death won’t shake Iran’s commitment to South Africa and BRICS

Ebrahim Raisi’s unexpected death won’t shake Iran’s commitment to South Africa and BRICS
Mourners salute the coffin of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, during his burial ceremony in Mashhad on 23 May 2024. (Photo: Iran's Presidency / West Asia News Agency via Reuters)

Though the demise of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi may cause some momentary uncertainty, experts largely believe the country would not want to rock the boat, especially not in terms of its relations with Africa.

The deaths of both Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a helicopter crash on 19 May were a major blow to Tehran, coming at a time of complex and precarious foreign policy challenges.

They have created uncertainty, triggering some fears of an even more hardline government – and possibly even one inclined to rush to build nuclear bombs. How this will affect relations with South Africa, the other BRICS countries and Africa is another question, and experts differ somewhat over the answer. 

Raisi was quickly replaced by his deputy, first Vice-President Mohammad Mokhber, who will be acting president until the presidential election on 28 June. 

“I think it creates a lot of uncertainty,” said Priyal Singh, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. “They were key figures in boosting recent bilateral ties, and their successors will likely need to re-establish ties with their South African counterparts, particularly if they reorient their foreign policy. Ultimately, though, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains in place and ensures foreign policy continuity for the time being.”

Philani Mthembu, executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, said the deaths were “a big loss for Iran, especially given its recent accession into BRICS and the geopolitical dynamics being managed in the Middle East”.

He noted that the acting foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, is close to Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, one of the top priority areas for the country (and to the wider world, one should add).

Mthembu said Iran would “not want to appear unsettled to countries it considers enemies, and thus has an interest in ensuring the transition is as smooth as possible”.

Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, believes Tehran is achieving that. He said the deaths did “not threaten to create any instability or change any balance of power in Iran, the West Asia region or globally”.

“The continuity will be almost seamless,” Jeenah said. “This includes the Iranian role in BRICS Plus and Iran-South Africa relations.” BRICS Plus refers to the expanded organisation after five new members – Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – joined Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Gustavo de Carvalho, senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, agreed that, “from a foreign policy perspective, including on BRICS, there should also be a degree of continuity, despite some momentary disruption”.

“For example, despite the accident, Iran was still represented in the BRICS academic forum and has regularly attended other meetings that are happening throughout the year. This is because its new membership in BRICS becomes a central foreign policy priority for the country to overcome international isolation.”

Maintaining the status quo

Immediately after the crash, Iranian and other social media buzzed with speculation that Iran’s enemies could be responsible. But Iranian authorities soon announced that they believed it had been an accident.

De Carvalho said this reduced the likelihood for any escalation. He predicted that Tehran would continue its deliberate efforts to avoid any major direct military confrontation with Israel, though this is relative.

In April, Iran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel after the latter killed several of its commanders in a strike in Syria. But Israel intercepted most of the projectiles, as Tehran probably predicted.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

Oxford political scientist and international relations lecturer Samuel Ramani said he didn’t think the deaths of the two leaders would much alter Iran’s foreign policy in the short term. “Iran’s foreign policy is going to remain firmly focused on the BRICS countries as well as moving away from the West.

“So I don’t think the relations between Iran and any individual BRICS country, including South Africa, will really change.”

Eric Lob, associate professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University, said Iran’s membership of BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was a long-term project that would outlast Raisi’s death. Iran joined the nine-nation SCO in July 2023, a month before joining BRICS. The common members between the two organisations are China, Russia and India.

“In the face of international isolation, they [BRICS and the SCO] are important to Iran for various reasons,” said Lob.

“They legitimise the state and allow it to participate in multilateral institutions that emphasise economics over politics and over principles like independence, non-alignment and non-interventionism.

“Also, they enable Iran to circumvent US sanctions and reinforce relations with member states like China, Russia and South Africa. Finally, they offer Iran a forum to constructively engage with regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Iran in Africa

Lob also noted that Raisi had reached out to Africa, most visibly at the second Iran-Africa Economic Cooperation Conference in Tehran in late April, where he preached anti-Western and anti-imperialist sentiments to the representatives of about 30 African governments.

They included Constantino Chiwenga, vice-president of Zimbabwe, which is a fellow “so-called rogue state”, Lob said. He noted that Zimbabwe was perhaps Iran’s main political ally and that Raisi had visited the country last year.

Lob said Raisi’s outreach to Africa was supposed to distinguish him from his liberal predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who had downgraded relations with the continent. But he thought Raisi’s interactions with Africa had been more symbolic than substantive.

“The exception is the Horn of Africa, where countries cut ties with Iran in 2016 after receiving military, diplomatic and economic assistance from Saudi Arabia and the UAE during the Yemeni Civil War.

“To salvage these relations, Iran under Raisi delivered drones and other military aid to the Ethiopian government during the Tigray War [2020-22] and, more recently, to the Sudanese Armed Forces during the ongoing civil conflict in Sudan.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fact Check — Did Iran fund South Africa’s approach to the ICJ over Israel?

Lob said it was unclear whether Raisi’s successor would strengthen support to states in the Horn and wider continent “beyond grandiose statements and weapons transfers”. He noted that South Africa was by far Iran’s largest economic partner, though overall trade with Africa totalled just over $1-billion in 2022. Raisi had vowed to increase this to $10-billion in three years.

Few commentators predict much change in Iran’s global posture after the presidential election this month, as most believe Khamenei will once again ensure that another like-minded conservative candidate wins.

Dennis Ross, America’s former long-time chief Middle East negotiator, told The New York Times that Khamenei “allows engagement, but no compromise. His team will inflict damage, but keep it within bounds. They don’t want a direct conflict with the US, which is the one thing that could threaten the regime.”

The real impact of Raisi’s death will probably only be felt after Khamenei’s, who is 85 and reportedly ill. As Jeenah noted, Raisi had long been touted as the most likely successor to Khamenei, the real leader who charts broad domestic and foreign policy.

“With Raisi’s death, there will now be strong competition among those who will seek to be elected to the office of Supreme Leader,” Jeenah said.

Khamenei’s son Mojtaba Khamenei, also a conservative cleric, has emerged as the new frontrunner. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    The Butcher of Tehran – now either meeting 72 Virginians (not a typo) or facing the thousands of Iranians he killed. I’m sure his successors will be taking trains instead of helicopters.

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