Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Will Iran Go the Nepo Baby Route Following Raisi’s Death?

Following the helicopter crash that resulted in the deaths of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian as they returned from Baku, Azerbaijan, Iranian state media has announced that presidential elections will now be held on June 28, a year earlier than initially planned.

Thousands of mourners have taken to the streets in cities such as Tabriz, Qom, and Mashhad to pay their respects and participate in the five days of national mourning. Despite this, election campaigning has yet to begin. The snap election requires candidates to register between May 30 and June 3 but given the second and final round of legislative elections has only just ended, many question whether now is the right time for another election in Iran.

On May 1, the second round of legislative elections for the Iranian Majles and the Assembly of Experts, responsible for appointing the Supreme Leader, took place and saw a rightward shift in the makeup of both the 88-seat and 290-seat bodies.

Earlier, in March, the registration process for the first round saw a record-breaking 48,847 candidates vying for seats in the Majles, with 75% under the age of 50. The Guardian Council, a 12-member body responsible for vetting candidates based on regime support, religious practice, and reputation, approved around 15,200 candidates. As a result, only about 20% of the candidates were reformers or moderates. This restriction on political choice, combined with widespread discontent with the regime, led to a record-low turnout of 41%—the lowest since 1979.

Due to the inability to change the system from within or direct change from the ballot box, calls for election boycotts emerged from prominent activists and civil society groups, including over 275 public figures and imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi. They urged voters to abstain or spoil their ballots, resulting in over one million invalid ballots.

The Reform Front, advocating for political and social reforms within the Islamic Republic’s framework, criticized the elections as neither free nor fair. Led by former President Muhammad Khatami, the Reform Front expressed concerns over the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election, especially so soon after the controversial legislative elections. Khatami went so far as to describe the elections as “far from free and fair.”

Despite the regime’s likely reservations about another election, the Iranian constitution mandates it, preventing deputies from serving out the terms of their superiors. While no candidates have declared their intent to run, interim President Mohammad Mokhber is expected to be a strong contender. A former officer in the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during the First Gulf War, Mokhber was a close ally of Raisi. Mokhber enjoys the favor of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who seeks a compliant successor.

Raisi’s loyalty to Khamenei, despite his perceived weaknesses, positioned him as a potential successor to the aging Supreme Leader, who is now 85 and has been in power for 35 years. Raisi’s death has opened opportunities for other political leaders to ascend. Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, leader of the Coalition Council in the Majles and father-in-law to Khamenei’s son, is another plausible candidate. However, his age might be a factor against him.

As Khamenei’s health declines, speculation grows around his son, Sayyid Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei, as a potential successor. Although the younger Khamenei lacks the traditional religious credentials, his father’s precedent of constitutional reform in 1988 could pave the way for similar changes. Mojtaba’s potential succession raises questions about the future direction of Iran, with some drawing parallels to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his Vision 2030.

The London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi previously published a detailed report on the fortunes of the Khamenei family, stating that Khamenei’s sons and daughters have amassed billions of dollars, mostly deposited in banks in the UK, UAE, Syria, and Venezuela. Reuters reports that the Khamenei family has built up a business empire worth over $95 billion. This economic power could influence Iran’s political landscape, with Mojtaba potentially pursuing reforms to modernize and stabilize the regime.

While there is an irony to hereditary rule becoming the norm among revolutionaries who toppled a hereditary monarchy, the succession of Mojtaba Khamenei could signal a shift towards a more socially liberal and economically progressive Iran, reminiscent of the changes seen in Saudi Arabia.

As a similarly ‘young’ leader looking to create a regionally assertive power, it would be likely that Mojtaba follows in the Saudi Crown Prince’s footsteps, relaxing socially conservative and religious rules, and seeking a detente with the United States. While it may not be Western-style democracy, many believe it would be an offer the majority of Iranians would accept, and that would increase the lifespan of the ‘Islamic Republic’ that externally appears strong, but internally is increasingly fragile.