Iranian President’s Death Casts Shadow on Future of South Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 78

(Source: Tasnim News Agency)

Executive Summary:

  • The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is unlikely to fundamentally change Tehran’s foreign policy approach immediately, but it is already affecting Iranian domestic politics and could eventually affect its relations with the outside world.
  • Any change would likely first be seen first in Tehran’s relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, with whom Raisi sought to normalize relations but toward whom some in Iran favor a different approach.
  • As the fates of the three countries are so strongly interconnected, the fallout in Iran from the president’s death may thus cause numerous upheavals in the South Caucasus that may appear unrelated.

In the Iranian political system, the office of the president is not especially powerful. Thus, it is not surprising that observers have been nearly unanimous that Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter accident on May 19 is unlikely to change Tehran’s foreign policies immediately, especially with regard to major powers (RBC;; RIA Novosti, May 20). Yet, as the late president was far more interested in normalizing ties with other countries and was viewed by many as a favorite to eventually become Iran’s supreme leader, many analysts are suggesting that his death will upend Iranian domestic politics. That, in turn, they say, will open the way to a fundamental reorientation of Tehran’s foreign policy, possibly leading to a new wave of radicalization (Izvestia;, May 20). Armenia and Azerbaijan are among the first places where such a shift would be visible, and Raisi had been working to improve relations with both countries. Should that shift occur now that he is dead, it would significantly impact issues in the South Caucasus, ranging from the peace process between Yerevan and Baku to the opening of transit corridors and water-sharing arrangements. This could lead to delays or even reversals of Raisi’s efforts.    

More than any other senior Iranian official, Raisi worked hard during his term in office to normalize ties with Azerbaijan and Armenia. Even on the last day of his life, the late president met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, to mark the opening of two new water projects on the transborder Aras River, discuss the re-opening of the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, and consider the development of transport links between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhichevan via Iranian territory (, May 19; Kavkaz-uzel, May 20; for background, see EDM, September 23, 2022, October 11, 2023, March 27). Raisi was supposed to go on to Armenia’s Syunik oblast to meet with Yerevan’s leaders to mark the opening of a section of the north-south trade route through that region. However, without explanation, the Iranian president canceled that visit and instead flew south, where his helicopter crashed (, May 20).

These events, along with the conflict between Israel and Hamas and international hostility toward Tehran, have caused Raisi’s death to spark a plethora of conspiracy theories in Iran, Russia, Türkiye, and elsewhere. These theories alternatively blame Raisi’s domestic opponents or foreign governments for his death (;, May 20;, May 21). Iranian officials have denied all such theories, blaming weather conditions for the crash. Conspiracy thinking nonetheless appears set to grow among Iranians. It will undoubtedly be exploited by both the opponents of Raisi’s policies, who will seek to place the blame on foreigners and demand national unity against them, and his supporters, who will blame conservatives in the government and demand that they be overthrown. As a result, the greatest consequences of the helicopter crash lie ahead due to how unsettling Iranian politics are already (RBC; RIA Novosti;, May 20). 

Before a wholesale change in Iran’s foreign policy, Tehran will likely test the waters for such changes by making shifts regarding Armenia and Azerbaijan. Iran is less likely to change its relations with Armenia, at least directly. If it adjusts its relations with Azerbaijan, however, that will play a key role in redefining the Islamic Republic’s relations with Yerevan. For Tehran, Armenia is a bridge that supports its burgeoning relationship with Russia and a major channel for Iran’s hopes to expand influence throughout the Caucasus and beyond (see EDM, November 1, 2022, June 7, 2023, February 22). Almost any Iranian government, conservative or more liberalized, would try to keep these ties in place unless Yerevan moves so close to the West that Tehran views that as a threat to itself (see EDM, June 21, 2023, January 23). Iran’s relationship with Azerbaijan is more fraught. Any changes in that relationship—on transit and the use of water from the Aras River—could profoundly affect Tehran’s approach to Armenia.

Compelling reasons already point to the fact that Tehran may now revisit issues such as transit between Azerbaijan proper and the noncontiguous region of Nakhichevan and growing Azerbaijani demands on the Aras River for water—both of which affect Armenia and hence Iran’s relations with Yerevan (see EDM, November 3, 2023). More important than these, especially in Tehran, is that the Azeris remain a divided nation: almost a third of the population of Iran is Azerbaijani Turkish. They outnumber the Azerbaijanis of the Republic of Azerbaijan three to one. As a result, links between foreign and domestic policies in Tehran regarding Azerbaijanis are closely intertwined. This pattern has grown in importance as Azerbaijani leaders talk about “southern Azerbaijan” in Iran and Tehran backs Islamist radicals in Azerbaijan. Tensions will likely increase further if Iranian politicians exploit Raisi’s death for their own ends (Window on Eurasia, November 13, 22, December 1, 2022).

Both Baku and Yerevan are aware of these risks. They seem, nevertheless, to be focusing on other issues, perhaps in the hope that Tehran is now so obsessed with developments in Gaza that Iranian officials will not fixate on the implications of Raisi’s death for the South Caucasus. Such hopes are illusory, however, given Iran’s history and especially given Raisi’s role in promoting relations with the countries of the region. Both Iranians who support those efforts and his broader ones and those who oppose his broader efforts and thus oppose his approach to the South Caucasus will likely be focusing on this issue for some time to come—potentially transforming a single helicopter crash into a wider predicament for the region as a whole.