The death of a President and the Arrest Warrant for a Prime Minister



Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi

by Rajan Philips

Neither the tragic death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi nor the ICC Prosecutor’s request for an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to have any significant implications for the short term in either of the two countries or in the region. The Iranian regime’s standing in the short term is believed to be assured with the transfer of power already to Vice President Mohammad Mokhber and his likely endorsement in the national election scheduled for June 28.

The uncertainty and the speculation after President Raisi’s death are about the succession of the 85 year old Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The late President was widely expected to succeed Ali Khamenei and that would have ensured an almost seamless regime continuity. The search for an alternative successor will open opportunities both for internal power struggle in the regime and for regime opponents to take another crack at Iran’s hybrid state.

Equally, there will be no immediate change either in Israel or in Gaza arising from the bold and balanced decision of the Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan, of the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in the Hague, Netherlands, to ask for arrest warrants for Prime Minister Netanyahu, his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar and its political leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Mr. Netanyahu was already under pressure from his political rival and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz to come up with a postwar solution for Gaza immediately or to step down from office. Now Gantz and almost all of Israel are united in denouncing the decision of the ICC prosecutor. That lets Netanyahu off the hook for now but not for long.

Hamas too has denounced the prosecutor’s warrant application as an attempt “to equate the victim and the executioner.” Just like pro-Israeli denunciation of the warrant for allegedly drawing a false equivalence between a democratic state and a terrorist organization.” President Biden has called the arrest move “outrageous” and the Republicans in the US Congress are planning a bipartisan move to pass sanctions on Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan and other ICC officials to punish them for preparing arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his defence minister.

Mixed Reactions

The Biden Administration would seem to be going along with it based on the nod to the legislators given by Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee the day after Khan’s warrant move. Imposing sanctions would be a repeat of the US sanctions during Trump presidency against Khan’s predecessor Fatou Bensouda when she opened investigations, in 2019, into alleged war crimes by the US in Afghanistan and by Israel in the Palestinian territories. So, Mr. Khan is not doing anything new, but the US Democrats at that time ridiculed Trump and the Republicans for imposing sanctions against ICC officials.

And within three months of replacing Trump, in April 2021, the Biden Administration lifted Trump’s sanctions against Ms. Bensouda. Secretary Blinken said at that time while the US continued to “disagree strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations,” the approach of the Biden Administration would be to address its concerns “through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process rather than through the imposition of sanctions.” Now, the Secretary and the Administration are following the example of Trump and letting the Republicans lead the sanctions process.

Whatever might be the final outcome of Prosecutor Khan’s warrant application, it has already had the unintended but inevitable effect of exposing the growing division among western countries over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The same division that the world saw in the UN vote on granting Palestine a full member status is now being replayed over the actions of the ICC. The US and Israel are standing together and are standing isolated. They are joined by a few countries like Hungary. Hungary voted against the UN resolution on Palestinian status and its Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a long-time ally of Netanyahu, has now criticized the ICC warrant decision.

In Britain, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called a snap election for July 4, which The Economist has described as “odd and illogical – much like him,” the two parties are divided on the ICC warrant matter. Although irrelevant, it is worth noting that ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan is a British Barrister born to Pakistani parents and raised in Scotland. Mr. Sunak has called the warrant application “a deeply unhelpful development.” The Labour Party, on the other hand, has indicated that the UK and all members of the ICC, “have a legal obligation” to comply with ICC warrants.

Mr. Khan’s warrant application is the first to target the leader of a ‘western country’, which Israel is considered to be. The warrant is subject to review by a panel of three ICC judges who can amend, reject, or approve it. If approved as requested, the onus will be on member countries to arrest Mr. Netanyahu if he were to visit any of them. There is an outstanding ICC arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin alleging unlawful transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia. The warrant was issued on March 17, 2023, the first against the leader of one of the five permanent member countries of the UN Security Council. The warrant against Putin was welcomed by Ukraine’s western allies including the US, and it has curtailed Mr. Putin’s overseas travel for fear of being arrested.

A majority of western countries have also expressed support for the ICC Prosecutor’s warrant applications for arresting Israeli and Hamas leaders. Ireland, Norway, and Spain have gone further and made a coordinated announcement recognizing Palestine as a state to standing ovations in their respective parliaments. They now join the more than 140 countries that have already recognized Palestinian statehood. None of this would bring about a foreseeable end to the continuing tragedy in Gaza or the continuation of Netanyahu as Prime Minister. There is still a long and tortuous road ahead. But the signposts to a future Palestinian state are ever so slightly getting clearer.

President Raisi’s Funeral

At the same time, the creation of a new Palestinian State is not going to be at the expense of the State of Israel. Hence the two state solution. The State of Israel is now recognized by 165 of the UN’s 193 member states. The 28 countries that have not recognized Israel are mostly Muslim countries, many of them members of the Arab League who were signatories to the celebrated 1967 Khartoum Resolution: The Three Noes of Khartoum – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. That was in the wake of the Six Day Arab-Israeli war of 1967. A number of countries, including Sudan, have since gone past Khartoum and have recognized Israel and established diplomatic relations. The notable exception is Iran.

Even under the Shah, Iran voted against and opposed the partition plan and the admission of Israel as a UN Member. De facto (not de jure) relations with Israel were subsequently established, but everything was severed after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The official Iranian rhetoric has since been to call for the elimination of Israel, the same rhetoric as that of Hamas, and a mutually reinforcing counter to the Netanyahu rhetoric rejecting not only the two-state solution, but also the very concept of a Palestinian state.

There is not going to be any change in Iran’s rhetoric or its position against Israel in the aftermath of President Raisi’s death. But there could be a pause in the regional needling between the two countries as both Netanyahu in Israel and the regime in Iran will have their hands full attending to other pressures and priorities. President Raisi’s funeral in Tehran became a focal point for portraying Iran’s domestic politics and its external outreach.

The funeral may have provided the first occasion for the presence of foreign dignitaries in large numbers after Trump’s disastrous abrogation of the West’s nuclear deal with Iran that was signed during the Obama presidency. If the sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration were intended to turn Iran into a pariah state, that has not happened. The US sanctions have hurt Iran economically, but they have not weakened its influence not only regionally, but also globally.

The funeral provided the occasion for the Global South to mark its presence, and for the West its ‘unwelcomeness.’ Not to mention the ritual chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The regional countries were fully represented, including foreign ministers from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the most significant attendee was Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, just two days after the ICC Prosecutor’s arrest warrant application. Others included Hezbollah’s deputy leader Naim Qassem and Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam Al Houthi.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to overstate the regional influence of Iran. In fact, one of the failed objectives of the 1979 Iranian revolution, at least as articulated by Ayatollah Khomeini, has been the failure of the intended ‘export’ of the revolution to Arab countries outside Iran and overwhelm their corrupt governments. Khomeini wanted to appeal to all Muslims, both Sunnis and Shiites, even as he was scornful of the idea of nationalism within the Islamic umma. The revolution entrenched Iran’s historic uniqueness in the region – its Persian roots and Shiite faith, but it could not purchase faithful followers beyond its borders. The only exception has been Syria that has allied with Iran, and in this century the accidental addition of Iraq – thanks to the ill-advised Bush-Blair misadventure in Iraq.

From a domestic standpoint, President Raisi’s funeral, in terms of attendance and public grief, reportedly fell far short of the 2020 funeral of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian General who was assassinated on the orders of US President Trump. Notable absentees were Iran’s living past presidents, some of whom have been more effective in establishing relative presidential autonomy, unlike the late Ebrahim Raisi who was believed to be more of a fig leaf President to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Khamenei was Iran’s President under Ayatollah Khomeini’s, and became the Supreme Leader in 1989, following Khomeini’s death and allegedly thwarting the succession pursuit of Khomeini’s son. Now with President Raisi gone, there is speculation that Khamenei’s son Mojtaba Khamenei could be a potential contender to succeed his father as the next Supreme Leader. That would be filial succession and could be seen as a betrayal of the revolution that ended the Pahlavi Dynasty,