Ebrahim Raisi dies in helicopter crash: What does Iranian President’s death mean for India-Iran ties?

  • Iranian experts believe that Raisi's death won't change the India-Iran status quo since the Supreme Leader, not the President, determines the broader contours of Iran’s foreign policy.

Gulam Jeelani
Updated21 May 2024
FILE- Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi
FILE- Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi ( (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File))

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 20, expressed grief over the demise of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a chopper crash. In his condolence message on X, formerly Twitter, Modi said India stands with Iran in ‘this time of sorrow’.  

"Deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic demise of Dr. Seyed Ebrahim Raisi, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His contribution to strengthening the India-Iran bilateral relationship will always be remembered. My heartfelt condolences to his family and the people of Iran. India stands with Iran in this time of sorrow," the Prime Minister said.

Also Read: Iran helicopter crash: Who was Ebrahim Raisi? Protégé of Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei

The helicopter carrying Raisi and other officials, including Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, crashed on Sunday in the Dizmar forest in East Azarbaijan Province, according to state media. No one on board the helicopter survived.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar also condoled Raisi's death, terming it ‘shocking’.  India has announced a one-day mourning on May 21 through out the country as a mark of respect to the departed souls.

Raisi, 63, was elected President of Iran in August 2021 and was seen as a leading candidate to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 85, Iran’s Supreme Leader.

India-Iran relations

PM Modi last met Raisi in August 2023, ahead of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. New Delhi supported Tehran's bid to join BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). Iran joined the intergovernmental alliance in September 2023 during the South Africa BRICS summit.

India and Iran have long shared historical and cultural ties. In the last many decades, India has maintained cordial relations with countries in the region, including Iran, which has a shared border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Bilateral trade ties between the two nations improved after Raisi was elected President in 2021. In 2022-23, Iran was India’s 59th biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $2.33 billion. According to a report, India’s trade with Iran increased by 21.77 per cent — from $1.94 billion in 2021-22 to $2.33 billion in 2022-23. 

“For India, Iran is a stabilising force in the Persian Gulf, and military and security cooperation between the two countries is on the rise,” Jayanth Jacob, a foreign policy analyst, wrote in a recent piece in Deccan Herald. 

Not Much Change Expected 

In August 2021, India was among the few countries to be invited to the oath-taking of President Ebrahim Raisi. However, Iranian experts said that Raisi's death won't change the status quo since the broader contours of Iran’s foreign policy are determined by the country's Supreme Leader, not by the President. 

“Under President Raisi, Iran pursued a ‘look east’ strategy of deepening ties with Asian powers, including India. The progress made on regional connectivity projects involving India, mainly the INSTC and Chabahar port, underscores Iran’s strategic view of its relations with India,” Deepika Saraswat, Associate Fellow at the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, told LiveMint. 

Also Read: Enhancing trade connectivity: Why India views INSTC as key

The INSTC, or the International North-South Transport Corridor, is a 7,200-km multi-mode network route for moving freight between India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia, and Europe. 

“However, as the Supreme Leader determines the broad contours of Iran’s foreign policy, Raisi’s untimely death is not likely to change the course of India-Iran ties, which have boosted since the signing of the long-term contract on Chabahar,” said Saraswat, who has also authored the book ‘Between Survival and Status: The Counter-Hegemonic Geopolitics of Iran.’

The Chabahar Port Deal

On May 13, India and Iran signed a ten-year contract for the Iranian Chabahar Port after years of negotiations. The deal paved the way for the full use of this strategic port in southeastern Iran, which was developed with Indian aid and thus expanded trade with Central Asia. The pact replaces one-year contracts that have been signed to keep the port operational until now.

Also Read: Who is Mohammad Mokhber, the man set to become Iran's interim president?

The agreement that replaced the original 2016 agreement was signed by Indian Ports Global Limited (IPGL) and the Port & Maritime Organisation of Iran. IGPL would invest $120 million and raise $250 million in debt.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called the Chabahar Port pact between the two countries an important milestone that will help provide much-needed connectivity to Afghanistan. "In 2016, during my visit to Iran, the trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan was signed to provide the much-needed connectivity to Afghanistan,” PM Modi told news agency PTI

Also Read:  Ebrahim Raisi 'assassinated'? Many suspect Israel's role behind Iranian President's death, officials clarify

The PM said that his government had given precedence to Chabahar Port since they came to power in 2014.

The Succession  

The death of Raisi and the foreign minister—the two key government figures who make decisions about foreign policy—could delay but not disrupt the deal since the Supreme Leader makes the final decisions. 

Iran has been in focus globally in the ongoing war in Gaza, especially after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Under these circumstances, India will be keenly watching how the succession plan unfolds in Iran.  

According to the Iranian constitution, the first vice president takes over if a president dies in office. Iran's incumbent first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, has been appointed interim president after the approval of the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  

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