Tuesday, 21 May 2024 06:19

What the death of Iran’s president could mean for its future

Iranians gathered to mourn the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a helicopter crash the previous day, at Valiasr Square, on May 20, 2024 in Tehran, Iran

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi died Sunday in a helicopter crash, a shocking turn of events that immediately raised questions about the Islamic Republic’s future.

In the short term, Raisi’s passing is unlikely to alter the direction of Iran’s politics. But it does remove one possible successor to 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In the long term, Raisi’s unexpected death may prove more consequential. The question of Khamenei’s succession is increasingly urgent because of his advanced age. Though Iran’s president can be influential in setting policy, the Supreme Leader is the real seat of power, controlling the judiciary, foreign policy, and elections.

Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian’s helicopter made a hard landing sometime on Sunday in Iran’s mountainous northwest, where weather conditions made travel difficult and dangerous. Iranian state media announced the deaths of the two politicians and six others onboard, including three crew members, on Monday after rescue teams finally reached the crash site.

The deaths of both Raisi and Amirabdollahian come at a time of internal and external challenges for the Iranian regime. A harsh crackdown after the widespread protests of 2022 and significant economic problems domestically have eroded the regime’s credibility with the Iranian people. Internationally, Iran is embroiled in a bitter regional conflict with Israel as well as a protracted fight with the US over its nuclear program.

In the near term, the first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, will be the acting president as the country prepares to hold elections within the next 50 days as dictated by its constitution. (The Iranian government includes vice presidencies overseeing different government agencies, similar to US Cabinet-level secretaries; the first vice president is roughly equivalent to the US vice president.)

Raisi was considered a potential successor to Khamenei, having already been vetted by the ruling clerics during his 2021 presidential run and having been committed to the regime’s conservative policies. With his death, amid one of the regime’s most challenging periods, Iran’s long-term future is a little less certain.

Within Iran, succession is the biggest question

A hardline conservative cleric, Raisi always wore a black turban symbolizing his descent from the prophet Muhammad. His close relationship with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fueled speculation that he could succeed Khamenei. The paramilitary force exerts significant sway over internal politics and also wields influence throughout the broader region through aligned groups and proxy forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas in Gaza.

Raisi was initially elected in 2021 with 62 percent of the vote, though turnout was only 49 percent — the lowest ever in the history of the Islamic Republic, evidence of the crisis of legitimacy in which the government increasingly finds itself.

“People don’t want to legitimate the government by participating in what they consider either fraudulent or just non-representative political outcomes,” Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Walter H. Annenberg professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, told Vox.

Throughout his judicial career, Raisi is alleged to be responsible for or implicated in some of the government’s most brutal repression and human rights abuses since the 1979 revolution, including serving on the so-called Death Committee, which was tasked with carrying out thousands of extrajudicial executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. During and after the Iran-Iraq war, there were a number of groups opposed to the regime, as well as supporters of the Iraqi position and even an attempt to attack Iran from Iraq. In order to preserve the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered a sweeping purge of the opposition; many of the dissidents who were arrested were chosen for execution arbitrarily.

Following the disputed 2009 election — which birthed the Green Movement, the most significant threat to the regime in decades — Raisi, then a high-level member of the judiciary, called for the punishment and even execution of people involved in the movement. And as president, he helped oversee the violent backlash to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement that erupted following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman arrested by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

Raisi’s unpopularity due to his repressive past and worsening living standards for ordinary Iranians had helped further erode the government’s legitimacy, which may affect the upcoming presidential contest.

“On the one hand, bringing people to the ballot boxes is going to be difficult,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, told Vox. “On the other, I think [the Council of Guardians, which oversees elections in Iran] also don’t want, necessarily, the people to come to the ballot boxes. And they also don’t want to have an open election, because the entire focus of the leadership right now is on ideological conformity at the top, they don’t really care about legitimacy from below.”

That will mean a highly manicured list of candidates in the upcoming election. Though there are possibilities for some marginal change, Negar Mortazavi, a journalist and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, said during a panel discussion Monday that there will be little room for any significant shift.

“[Raisi] could potentially be replaced by someone like Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf,” the current speaker of the Parliament, who is not a cleric and may be less socially conservative, Mortazavi said. “So I see a little bit of openings in the enforcement of, for example, mandatory hijab, the lifestyle policing of young Iranians. That’s the one area that we could potentially see any policy change direction or enforcement of existing laws and regulations.”

But the next president, whoever it is, will likely be a caretaker and not the successor to Khamenei. That person — potentially Khamenei’s own son, Mojtaba — will be the conduit for power and policy in Iran over the coming decades. Iran’s political future will also be dictated by the IRGC, which has grown its power, visibility, and centrality in recent years.

“What the [Iranian] deep state wants is a leader who’s no longer supreme, and is basically a frontman for the current office and the Revolutionary Guards to be able to preserve their vested economic and political interest in the system,” Vaez said. “There are clerics who would fit that profile — either Ayatollahs who are too old to be able to actually run their own affairs, and they certainly would not be able to run the country, or are too young and too inexperienced and lack constituency of their own.”

Iran’s international precariousness, explained

Raisi’s death comes as Iran is engaged in a deepening proxy war with Israel as the Jewish state fights Hamas in Gaza, particularly through Iran’s affiliated group in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Its allies in Yemen, the Houthis, have traded fire with US forces in the Red Sea, and Syrian and Iraqi militias have attacked US anti-terror installations in those countries.

In April, Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of an Iranian military official in Damascus, Syria earlier that month. It was the first time Iran had launched such an attack on Israeli territory from its own, and prompted further retaliation from Israel in the form of its own missile and drone attack.

Iran’s conflict with Israel usually comes through allied non-state groups in its “axis of resistance” across the Middle East, like the militias in Syria and Iraq that attack American positions or Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which trades rocket fire with the Israeli military over the southern Lebanese border.

Those international efforts are not likely to change significantly in the near future following Raisi’s death. Amirabdollahian was close to the IRGC command, the Associated Press reported Monday, and they are likely to maintain significant sway over Iran’s internal and external affairs.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani will take over as acting foreign minister until a new government is formed. His portfolio includes negotiation over Iran’s nuclear program, which will continue to be a critical part of its foreign policy agenda. Some experts fear that any uncertainty about Iran’s internal politics, given the nuclear stakes, elevates the risk of direct conflict between Iran and the US or Israel.

“Iran is already a nuclear weapons threshold state, and regional tensions are high,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said in a panel discussion Monday. “We’ve seen this uptick in Iranian statements about weaponization potential. So the risk of the United States or Israel miscalculating Iran’s nuclear intentions was already quite high, and any injection of domestic political turmoil increases the risk of misinterpreting Iranian actions. I think that the risk of miscalculation will remain.”

On the other hand, this period of turnover, during which the Iranian government’s priority will likely be to mitigate any risk of major change or upheaval, could present an opportunity for the international community and the Biden administration to de-escalate relations with Iran, particularly concerning its nuclear projects, Davenport said.

“I think the Biden administration should be prepared to try to put a package on the table that incentivizes Iran to take some short-term steps that reduce proliferation risk,” she added.

Real change in Iran will not come through a single person, but through systemic change, Kashani-Sabet told Vox.

“Iran needs a new political framework; we need a new constitutional framework,” she said. “I think this is really the only way out for Iran — a constitutional framework that helps to forge a more participatory and inclusive political culture.”