What impact will Iranian president’s death have on Tehran’s policy in Syria

Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad welcomes late Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Damascus - May 3, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)

Syrian regime president Bashar al-Assad welcomes late Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in Damascus - May 3, 2023 (Syrian Presidency)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

As hopes of rescuing Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi and his companions, whose plane crashed in Azerbaijan, began to fade, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, addressed the Iranian people in his speech, assuring them that the country’s governance mechanism would function properly, and that the death of the Iranian president due to the accident would not affect the country’s administration.

Since Tehran officially does not acknowledge its influence abroad, specifically in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, it remains unclear whether the deaths of Raisi and his companions might impact Iran’s influence in Arab countries, or the way this influence is managed there.

On its part, the Syrian regime quickly announced its solidarity with Iran following the announcement of the deaths of the Iranian officials, declaring a national mourning period of three days, with flags flown at half-mast across the country, at embassies and diplomatic missions abroad, as reported by the official Syrian news agency (SANA).

Iranian state media yesterday, Monday, May 20, announced the death of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi and the Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, following a helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of other officials in East Azerbaijan province.

The announcement was made from the Shrine of Imam Reza, followed by an emergency government meeting.

Will it affect Syria?

When discussing Iran’s relationship with Syria, conversations often turn to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its foreign intelligence, the Quds Force, or the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, while mentions of the Iranian president or other diplomatic figures are less frequent.

Mahmoud al-Bazi, a researcher on Iranian affairs, believes that assessing the impact of the president and foreign minister’s deaths requires understanding the governance mechanism in Iran and decision-making related to foreign policy, specifically towards Syria.

Speaking to Enab Baladi, the Tehran-based researcher stated that Iran’s foreign policy files are managed by the House of the Leader, the foreign policy committee in the parliament, the National Security Council, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps through specific individuals, with the Foreign Ministry responsible for executing policies set by these institutions.

Since the outset of the Syrian file, Iran delegated its management to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to al-Bazi, meaning that the latter’s decisions represent Tehran’s policy towards Syria.

Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, was responsible for the Syrian file and appointed representatives in Syria until his killing in an American airstrike in Iraq in January 2020.

Furthermore, one of the main officials responsible for the Syrian file, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, was killed last April in an Israeli airstrike that targeted a building adjacent to the Iranian consulate in Damascus.

Al-Bazi noted that Soleimani had extensive authority in the Syrian file, responsible for coordinating visits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Tehran, and providing financial and military support in Syria, acting as a linkage between Syria, Lebanon, and Iran.

He added that Tehran’s dealings with Damascus would not change with shifts in government, whether they are reformist or fundamentalist, as they are still managed by the same entity.

Al-Bazi pointed out that the height of military operations in Syria occurred under the administration of Iran’s former president, Hassan Rouhani, and afterwards, Ibrahim Raisi was elected, but Tehran’s approach to the Syrian file did not change with the change of individuals.

Tehran’s loss

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, was consistently present in the Syrian scene, nearly always at the forefront of any event linking his country with Damascus. He also played a role in coordinating pro-Iranian militias in Syria following the death of Qassem Soleimani, according to political analyst specializing in Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi.

Speaking to Enab Baladi, al-Nuaimi mentioned that while the duties of a foreign minister are always connected to his country’s diplomacy, Abdollahian had a different track, as he previously visited pro-Iran militias in Lebanon and others in Iraq.

In February, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah discussed political and security developments related to the military actions in the Gaza Strip with the Iranian foreign minister, following the Israeli military attack.

Al-Nuaimi considered that Iran’s recurring losses of prominent leaders and influential figures in foreign files could impact its foreign policy making, but for now, it’s not considered that the Iranian president and foreign minister’s deaths would lead to this shift.

On April 1, an Israeli airstrike in Damascus killed Iranian General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, along with other Iranian military personnel accompanying him, as officially announced by Iran, highlighting them as significant influencers in the Syrian and Lebanese files from Iran’s side.

This followed an Israeli airstrike on December 25, 2023, which targeted a house in the town of Sayyida Zeinab in the Damascus countryside, killing one of the oldest advisors of the Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, Seyyed Razi Mousavi, who was among the prominent Iranian influential figures in Syria.

Managed by the “deep state”

While Tehran possesses a unique and complex governance mechanism globally, dominated by the Supreme Leader of Iran, researchers and experts agree that Iran’s influence and approach in Syria will not be affected by Ibrahim Raisi’s absence.

Political analyst Marwan Farzat, specializing in Iranian affairs, told Enab Baladi that all security files, including Syria, are managed by the “deep state” in Tehran, particularly by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, while the presidency and the Foreign Ministry are executive authorities that change every few years.

Farzat added that these executive authorities are limited to implementing policies designed by the “deep state,” with a slight margin of freedom for movement and maneuvering but within a pre-set strategy.

He believes that the absence of Raisi or Abdollahian will not alter the details of the equation set by decision-makers in Tehran, as was the case when the influential Revolutionary Guard advisors in Syria were killed, with their deaths having no measurable impact.

The specialist believes that the loss of Iranian military leaders due to Israeli attacks might have a greater impact than the losses of diplomats and politicians, as they directly and indirectly affect the implementation of these plans initially devised in Tehran.

Presidential elections in Iran are due to be held within 50 days, under the Iranian constitution.

According to a spokesperson for the Guardian Council, quoted by Tasnim news agency, the constitution provides for such cases, so following the president’s death, his first deputy assumes the government’s responsibilities.


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