Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Iran’s Succession Plans are Upended by Raisi’s Death

The unexpected death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19th has thrust the nation into a sudden succession crisis, with potential ramifications for the region and beyond.

Raisi, known as a trusted figurehead for representing establishment interests and displaying a hardline stance in quelling the 2022 protests, was considered a possible successor to the 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

His death, along with that of Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several other officials, comes at a critical moment of regional and domestic tension.

Iran is not typically a country where presidential deaths occur by accident. However, it is a nation where aircraft failures are not uncommon due to deteriorating infrastructure and the scarcity of parts and technology resulting from the raft of sanctions against the country. In the past, similar crashes have claimed the lives of at least two cabinet ministers and two high-ranking military commanders in 2006 and 2011.

President Raisi’s helicopter, which also carried Iran’s foreign minister and two top regional officials, was flying through a notoriously foggy and mountainous region in northwestern Iran, with weather so challenging it took rescue crews many hours to locate the crash site.

Though there is no reason to doubt the accidental nature of the crash, it is inevitable that the public will develop theories. Historical air incidents that claimed the lives of high-ranking political figures in China (1971), Pakistan (1988), and Poland (2010) remain subjects of speculation. In this instance, as in those cases, a key question will likely fuel the conjecture: Who stands to gain politically from Raisi’s death?

Raisi’s demise would shift the dynamics among factions within the Islamic Republic. As per the Iranian constitution, his vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, is now the acting president. Additionally, a council comprising Mohammad Mokhber, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i would be responsible for arranging new elections scheduled for June 28.

The prospects for Iran’s political structure are far from promising. The hardline establishment around Khamenei’s increasingly personalistic rule prevents the country from conducting necessary reforms to end its prolonged international isolation, achieve peaceful international relations in the Middle East, and enhance the liberties and welfare of the Iranian people.

The regime’s indifference to the Iranian people’s deepening socio-economic problems and demands for more liberties does not seem sustainable, both for the Iranian people and the regime itself. There remains a significant gap between the aspirations of the youth and the entrenched powers. Hence, a reformist president might ease both the domestic and international tensions strangling the country. Although unlikely, Khamenei’s support for a moderate candidate still remains an option on the table.

In the moderate/reformist camp, Hassan Rouhani, Ali Larijani, and Javad Zarif seem to be the most prominent candidates. Hassan Rouhani, who served as president from 2013 to 2021, was a moderate reformist who advocated for Iran’s opening and signed the Iran nuclear deal. Ali Larijani was the Parliament Speaker from 2008 to 2020 and an ally of former President Rouhani, who played a key role in passing the nuclear deal. Javad Zarif, the former Foreign Minister from 2013 to 2021, is one of the most popular politicians in Iran. His views on foreign policy, including the need for a deal with the U.S., and his negotiation skills in reaching the pact in 2015, contributed to his popularity.

However, prominent reformers like Rouhani, Ali Larijani, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the leader of the Green Movement, and Javad Zarif, as well as hardliners like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were either banned from the presidential race in 2021 or ousted from top official positions by the hardliner establishment.

In the conservative/hardliner camp, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and Saeed Jalili appear as the likeliest candidates to succeed Raisi.

Ghalibaf’s aspirations are widely known; he has pursued the presidency multiple times since 2005. More inclined towards technocracy than ideology, Ghalibaf served as a commander in the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War and is likely to garner support from within its ranks. His extensive tenure as Tehran’s mayor from 2005 to 2017 demonstrated both competence and instances of alleged corruption.

Saeed Jalili, a prominent member of the principlist camp, served as the chief nuclear negotiator for several years. Known for his radical stance, he opposes any interaction with the U.S. and agreements with Washington. He made two unsuccessful attempts to become president in 2013 and 2021.

Ghalibaf or Jalili’s leadership would mean total obedience to the Supreme Leader, resulting in the continuity of the status quo.

In terms of regional implications, a reformist government would likely turn inward and focus on addressing grave economic problems and restoring welfare and domestic stability. On the other hand, a potential hardliner government would not be more confrontational than before but would nonetheless continue its disruptive actions in the Middle East through proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Now, it appears we are on the verge of witnessing a limited power struggle in which different factions will showcase their strength. Since individuals must undergo scrutiny by the Guardian Council before becoming official candidates, the fundamental direction of Iranian policy is unlikely to shift significantly with the president who succeeds Raisi.

The real power struggle and a potential change of direction may only occur after Khamenei.