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What president Raisi's death means for Iran's future

What president Raisi's death means for Iran's future
7 min read
21 May, 2024
Analysis: While there is little reason to expect foreign policy changes, Raisi's death could trigger power struggles inside Iran's political system.

As Iranian state media reported on 20 May, President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian were among those who lost their lives in a helicopter crash the previous day.

The incident occurred in northwestern Iran’s Varzeqan region while Raisi was returning from a visit to Azerbaijan, where he met with President Ilham Aliyev near the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. Some suspect sabotage was involved but the exact cause of the crash remains unclear.

Not long after Iranian officials confirmed Raisi’s death, emotional mourners crowded Tehran’s Vali-e-Asr square, where they held posters of the deceased president and waved Palestinian flags.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced a five-day mourning period and expressed his condolences “to the dear people of Iran”. High-ranking government officials from around the world, including the US and other Western countries, also offered their condolences.

What comes next and how the Islamic Republic of Iran moves forward raises countless questions.

Firstly, it is important to understand that Iran’s president is not the country’s top authority. Instead, Khamenei is the Islamic Republic’s most important decision-maker. The operators in Iran’s system who brought Raisi to the presidency in 2021 will continue advancing their agendas and designs with him no longer alive.

After all, Raisi was mostly a face of the system and a figure who implemented the wishes of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

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Iran's position on the international stage

Perhaps with a new president some changes in social and domestic policies could be possible, though that is very far from guaranteed. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no reason to expect any changes in Iranian foreign policy because of Raisi’s death.

Improved relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as part of the “Neighbours First” strategy and closer ties with China, Russia, and Central Asia within the context of Iran’s “Look East” policy will continue.

Meanwhile, nuclear negotiations with the US, and Tehran’s support for regional actors within the “Axis of Resistance”, are all set to remain in place.

“Iranian foreign policy is not really the purview of the Islamic Republic’s president, that’s usually the Supreme Leader or the [IRGC’s] responsibility. As a result, we’re likely to see continuity in Iranian foreign policy in the aftermath of his death,” Dr Dina Esfandiary, an Iran expert and senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, told The New Arab.

Nonetheless, the timing of Raisi’s death is not optimal for Iran’s ruling order. It occurred as Tehran deals with a host of internal problems and conflict dynamics in the region more than seven months into Israel’s war on Gaza.

Raisi's death occurred as Tehran is dealing with a host of internal problems and conflict dynamics in the region. [Getty]

Additionally, the Iranian-Israeli attacks and counterattacks of last month established “new rules of engagement” in Tehran-Tel Aviv hostilities, which have brought new dangers and elements of unpredictability to the Middle East.

Amirabdollahian’s death could have some implications for how Iran executes diplomacy, though not the actual foreign policy itself.

“The foreign minister provides the vehicle and the personnel for negotiations and meetings, and for executing whatever the foreign and regional policy of the country is. To try to replace the foreign minister is going to be a major issue,” Negar Mortazavi, a Washington-based Iranian journalist, host of The Iran Podcast, and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, told TNA.

The next president will select the next foreign minister, so in this upcoming period there will be some uncertainty surrounding Iranian diplomacy.

“Iran is essentially going to have to have the acting foreign minister for the next two months, Ali Bagheri Kani. The lack of that position is probably going to create more chaos in the execution of foreign policy. As far as the foreign ministry itself…there will be a two-month disruption,” said Mortazavi.

Next month's presidential election

Article 131 of the Iranian constitution provides the mechanism for replacing a president who does not complete his term. This serves to reduce any risk of the system being jolted or any vacuum emerging.

Authorities have picked 28 June as the date for this upcoming election. Until the victor of that election comes to office, Vice President Mohammad Mokhber will be the Islamic Republic’s acting president.

Ensuring a smooth transition to the next president is a top priority for the Islamic Republic’s ruling order. Some analysts who spoke to TNA explained that there could be some challenges for the authorities as this process of moving toward a new president takes place.

“Elections have to be held within 50 days, a new president be chosen, new candidates [chosen, and an] approving of the process, and there’s not enough time for all of that as 50 days is very short,” Mortazavi told TNA.

Apathy among Iranians will challenge the Iranian leadership, according to experts.

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“With record low public participation in the recent parliamentary elections, the system will be hard-pressed to find a candidate that can generate public support and enthusiasm and maintain conservative loyalty and unity,” Dr Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, said in a TNA interview.

Given the challenges that the Islamic Republic faces at home and internationally, Raisi’s death is causing a “real and unforeseen headache for the leadership,” explained Dr Esfandiary. “They will have to organise elections, encourage enthusiasm and participation in favour of one of their own, at a time of historical political apathy,” she added.

“This period could be an opportunity to promote a more inclusive political process by presenting a moderate presidential candidate, potentially increasing voter participation. However, regional tensions may necessitate a more conservative leader, leading to intensified competition among hardliners," Dr Ghoncheh Tazmini, an Iran expert and author of Khatami's Iran: The Islamic Republic and the Turbulent Path to Reform (2013), told TNA.

"From a national security perspective, the Guardian Council may enforce stricter vetting of candidates to ensure the next president can safeguard the state during regional unrest."

Ensuring a smooth transition to the next president is a top priority for the Islamic Republic's ruling order. [Getty]

“The biggest challenge is to find a personality who has both administrative capacity and also enjoys the trust of the Supreme Leader as Raisi did to assume the presidency,” commented Dr Shireen Hunter, an honorary fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University who served as an Iranian diplomat before 1979, in a TNA interview.

“The main problem in Iran's political power structure, which was observed in the last two parliamentary and past presidential elections, is the lack of a person who can cover the needs of a wide range of people and political groups under his umbrella,” explained Javad Heiran-Nia, the director of the Persian Gulf Studies Group at the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in Iran.

“Conservative political currents lack a wide voter base, including the middle class - a class that has been the driver of political and social developments in Iran since the constitutional revolution until now,” he added.

Khamenei's succession

One of the most important questions now is how the death of Raisi could impact the succession of the Supreme Leader. To be sure, outside observers do not know who the next Supreme Leader will be. That will be decided through an extremely closed, quiet, and opaque process.

What is known, however, is that a hardline group within the system was strongly backing Raisi to be Khamenei’s successor, and he wanted the role. Now those hardliners must find someone else.

For Iran’s ruling order, Raisi’s death could complicate the process of selecting Khamenei’s successor, who has held the position since 1989.

“Raisi was one of the few people with sufficient qualifications, political, and intellectual, to succeed the current Supreme Leader,” Dr Hunter told The New Arab. “Most of the senior clerics are too old and also lack the political and administrative qualifications.”

Ultimately, there is much room for different power struggles among various groups and individuals inside the system.

How these complex competitions within the Islamic Republic may play out will be key to watch throughout the remainder of Khamenei’s time as Supreme Leader.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero