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Opinion

Destabilizing

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister are confirmed killed in a helicopter crash. This event produces much political uncertainty.

The crash site in a mountainous area was first located by a Turkish surveillance drone with heat-sensitive equipment. Vladimir Putin had sent a search aircraft and rescuers to the area.

The Russian leader also convened a late-night meeting with his security officials to assess the repercussions of the accident that just happened. Meanwhile, celebratory fireworks were set off in Tehran and members of the Iranian diaspora were dancing in the streets in several cities worldwide.

Thousands of paramilitary personnel belonging to the Revolutionary Guards have been deployed in the streets of Iran’s major cities, presumably to prevent people from massing up. Over the past year, numerous public demonstrations have been held by Iranians protesting the hardline Islamist policies of the clerical state.

Although this was their first impulse, hardline Iranian leaders will be hard put to blame this crash on Israel. Raisi was onboard a really ancient helicopter. He was traversing a mountain range from the border with Azerbaijan. The helicopter’s route took it through thick fog where visibility was virtually nil.

Mountain ranges are inherently dangerous for helicopters. Wind currents shift quickly. Updrafts are common. Visibility is always less than ideal.

Raisi’s crew took great risks in deciding to fly this route in bad weather. The tragedy is entirely human error. But the ripples of destabilization that this accident creates is due to the complex politics surrounding the main casualty.

Ebrahim Raisi is not beloved in Iran. In fact, he has been nicknamed “Butcher of Tehran” for the thousands of deaths associated with his rise to power and the wholesale repression he unleashed on his people.

From early in his climb up the scaffolding of Iran’s Islamist state, Raisi thrived on cruelty. He dealt with dissent brutally. He unleashed the morality police to enforce fundamentalist social norms on the entire population.

Raisi is not the most powerful man in Iran. The honor belongs to “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei. The former is considered a protege of the latter and his rise to the presidency signals the consolidation of power in the hands of hardliners. It was Khamenei who named Raisi head of the powerful judiciary in 2019.

The 63-year-old Raisi was elected president in 2021 – but only after moderate and reformist candidates were barred from participating in the elections by the hardline Guardian Council. His landslide victory is therefore pretty much like Putin’s: it was an electoral outcome shaped by the suppression of more moderate political currents in Iran.

Raisi began his rise to power as a prosecutor at the age of 25. In 1988, he formed part of a secret tribunal called the “Death Committee” that tried and re-tried thousands of cases of political prisoners already in detention. Human rights groups blame him for the deaths of about 5,000 people, many of them summarily executed and dumped in mass graves. Raisi has said that the executions were justified by a fatwa issued by then “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khomeini.

Much of Raisi’s tenure as president was marred by violent repression against citizens protesting the hardline social policies of the regime. Large demonstrations swept Iran after a young woman, arrested by the infamous morality police, died in their custody. Just last month, a protest singer was sentence to death.

There is a strong undercurrent of popular resistance to the fundamentalist policies of the hardliners in Tehran. The immediate danger, once Raisi’s death is announced, is that all the tensions in Iranian society will boil up to the surface and produce an episode of destabilization.

While the mullahs monopolize power, many fissures run through Iranian society. Many young Iranians do not conform with the strict social norms imposed on them and attempt to violate those norms at every opportunity – despite the risks of doing so.

I observed this firsthand when I visited Tehran several years ago. At the Philippine embassy, local hires arrive for work completely covered up in the mandatory burkas. As soon as they enter the compound, they quickly shed off the prescribed costumes, revealing themselves in very European dresses. In the evenings, young people congregate in commercial centers listening to western music.

One senses there are two societies inhabiting the same space. The first is the highly regimented society preferred by the mullahs. The second is a more open, more relaxed and certainly more cosmopolitan society subsisting just underneath the veneer of official norms.

There are tensions between the Farsi majority and minority groups such as the Kurds and the Sunni ethnic groups at Baluchistan. There are armed separatist movements that have become increasingly active of late.

Then there are tensions between hardliners and reformists that have for several years been expressed in the open arena of electoral contestation. The process of getting Raisi elected in fact involved the unprecedented suppression of reformist currents. That compresses the tensions but does not eliminate the divisions.

There is a reason why Putin convened a high level meeting on news Raisi’s helicopter crashed. Iran has been a reliable ally for the regime in Moscow. Any substantial realignment of power in Iran could reflect on Iran’s reliability in its partnership with Russia.

The apparent consensus produced through sheer repression could be very brittle. An event, such as the sudden death of a president, could unleash furies long repressed.

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