COMMENT: Ebrahim Raisi's death could lead to the rise of a new radical generation

COMMENT: Ebrahim Raisi's death could lead to the rise of a new radical generation
Teheran has covered its streets with President Raisi's image. / CC: Mohsen Tehrani
By Roozbeh Aliabadi of Global Growth Advisors May 21, 2024

Iran's political landscape has been shaped significantly by the complex and often contentious relationships between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the nation's presidents. Over the years, each president has navigated Khamenei's scrutiny, facing challenges in aligning their policies with his vision. This brief explores the complicated dynamics between Khamenei and various presidents, the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi, and the resulting implications for Iran's political future.

Khamenei's relationship with past presidents

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has had a contentious relationship with the nation's presidents. From Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's Western-leaning policies to Mohammad Khatami's controversial views on religion and freedom, each leader has faced Khamenei's disapproval. Rafsanjani's attempts to promote better relations with the West, Khatami's push for political and social reforms, and Ahmadinejad's populist but inconsistent policies have all been met with resistance from Khamenei. Hassan Rouhani's engagement with the US and his efforts to secure an arms-control agreement (particularly JCPOA), which Khamenei found unsatisfactory, further alienated him from the Supreme Leader's inner circle.

President Ebrahim Raisi was an ideal partner for Khamenei. Known for his uninspiring leadership, harsh rhetoric, and ruthless disposition, Raisi remained unwaveringly loyal to the 85-year-old Supreme Leader and was crucial in his succession strategy. Raisi's loyalty was reflected in his unwavering support for Khamenei's policies, strict enforcement of conservative principles, and efforts to suppress dissent. However, Raisi's unexpected death in a helicopter crash has disrupted these plans, unsettling Iran's internal politics. This disruption could empower a younger, more radical generation of politicians, leading to increased domestic repression and heightened international aggression.

Raisi's Career and Legacy

Raisi was a staunch revolutionary with unwavering ideological integrity. Early in his career, he held various prosecutorial positions, consistently pursuing and obtaining the execution of regime opponents. His reputation was solidified in 1988 when he served on the notorious death commissions, which executed over 5,000 political prisoners. He spent much of his career in the regime's shadowy sectors, eventually rising to head the judiciary before being elevated to the presidency. Raisi's extensive experience and loyalty made him a trusted figure, but his potential as a successor to Khamenei was uncertain. His ability to navigate the complexities of Iran's political landscape, lead the nation, and handle international relations remained contentious among observers.

Raisi's death introduces significant uncertainty and potential infighting into Iran's political landscape. The new political landscape is predominantly controlled by younger men criticising the older generation for corruption, a lack of revolutionary fervour, and a reluctance to challenge a declining American power more aggressively. This new cohort, hardened by numerous popular uprisings, includes many with backgrounds in the security services and the Revolutionary Guards. They are well-represented in the hardline Paydari Party, which holds a majority in parliament. Prominent figures include Morteza Aqa-Tehrani, one of the party's leaders, and Mehrdad Bazrpash, the roads and urban development minister in Raisi's administration. They support presidential candidates like Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator known for his disdain for international norms and democratic accountability.

Succession speculation and challenges

The broader issue of Khamenei's succession looms over the republic. There is frequent speculation that his son Mojtaba might inherit his father's position. However, the Islamic Republic remains opposed to dynastic succession, viewing it as a relic of Persian monarchs and Arab leaders. Mojtaba Khamenei may continue to wield significant influence behind the scenes, but his formal promotion would be difficult for Iran's leaders to justify. Therefore, another hardline cleric with significant stature and strong ties to the security services is likely to be considered, such as Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts responsible for selecting the next supreme leader. This succession battle is not just about who will lead next but also about maintaining the ideological purity and stability of the regime.

The helicopter crash occurred in the mountainous region of East Azerbaijan province, near the border with Azerbaijan. Rescue and recovery efforts were severely hindered by rain, fog, snow, and darkness, necessitating rescuers to travel on foot due to the challenging terrain. This raises questions about the decision to allow the helicopters carrying Iran's president and his entourage to fly in such adverse conditions. Sanctions likely prevented Iran from updating its helicopter fleet with the latest transponders. Although Raisi probably had a communications system, such as a satellite telephone, it could have been damaged in the crash, even if there were survivors. The involvement of rescue teams and technical support from Russia, Turkey, and other countries highlights the area's remoteness. It suggests Iran may lack the necessary technology and skills for such recovery missions.

A seasoned hardliner and trusted disciple of Iran's Supreme Leader held a pivotal role in the Islamic Republic. At 63, he had long been considered a strong contender, if not the most likely successor, to the current Supreme Leader, who is 85 and in frail health. Many viewed Raisi as uncharismatic but steadfast in defending the Islamic regime's policies for another generation, particularly at a time when Iran's population is increasingly disenchanted with the government. The loss of Raisi is undoubtedly a significant blow to the Supreme Leader, especially following the deaths of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and nuclear chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Khamenei has outlived many of his enemies but now seems to be outliving his most important supporters.

Potential replacements for Raisi

Several potential candidates will likely be considered to replace Raisi. However, finding a hardliner with Raisi's history, experience, political networks, and relative youth will be challenging. Raisi's death may lead to significant infighting and uncertainty. Ironically, this difficulty is partly due to Raisi's efforts to ensure no potential rival could develop a power base capable of challenging him. The recent ideological "purification" campaign may not strengthen the regime but instead undermine it.

The Islamic Republic has faced several seismic transitions, beginning with the assassination of its second president, Mohammad-Ali Rajai, in 1981 and the challenging period following Supreme Leader Khomeini's death in 1989. According to section 131 of Iran's constitution, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber would temporarily serve as president. Acting President Mokhber, Parliamentary Speaker Mohammad Ghalibaf, and judiciary chief Gholam Mohseni Ejei would form a committee to organise a presidential election within fifty days, now set in less than 50 days.

Impact on supreme leader succession

The more significant issue is how Raisi's death will impact the succession of the next Supreme Leader. As Iran's ultimate decision-maker, the Supreme Leader is critical in regime continuity. Even when not directly involved in decision-making, the Supreme Leader shapes the regime's core, especially in selecting Revolutionary Guard commanders, thereby controlling the ideological and coercive elements of the government. His successor will wield similar authority. The question of succession is fraught with challenges, as the new leader must maintain the delicate balance of power within the regime and uphold its ideological foundations.

Iran's foreign ministers are trusted executors of the country's strategy to project power and fracture international coalitions. Indirect discussions with Washington are a vital part of this strategy. Ali Bagheri-Kani, who has solid regime credentials, is a strong candidate to ensure continuity in Iran's diplomatic efforts. The deputy foreign minister, Bagheri-Kani, has served as deputy secretary of Iran's Supreme Council for National Security and managed the presidential campaign for hardliner Saeed Jalili. He has extensive experience with US diplomats as the lead negotiator on nuclear and hostage talks and has dealt with other countries, including China.

Appointing Bagheri-Kani would ensure continuity in Iran's diplomatic efforts with minimal disruption. Iran's international partners—from militias to Russia and China—will be keen to ensure that any successor to Raisi maintains the same level of political and other support. Although they know the Supreme Leader is the ultimate decision-maker, having the support of Iran's president helps to avoid political and bureaucratic complications.

Potential for domestic unrest and terrorist threats

The regime will likely seek to prevent unrest from suspected regime opponents during the fifty days leading up to the presidential election. Indicators of concern would include a spike in arrests of dissidents, heavy sentences for opposition figures on trial, and warnings to families of known dissidents that there will be no tolerance for protestors.

Since the protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022, the regime has intensified its efforts to identify, neutralise, and punish dissidents. This election could trigger a new wave of protests. Iran's domestic intelligence personnel will identify and neutralise this threat. Groups like ISIS-K may attempt terrorist actions during this sensitive period.

A state funeral for Raisi will be an opportunity to show domestic support for the regime, similar to the funeral of Qassem Soleimani. Such an event would also draw many foreign leaders, allowing Iran to counter any narrative of diplomatic isolation.

Raisi's death significantly reshuffles the political landscape, introducing uncertainty and potential infighting. The regime will prioritise calm and stability while navigating this crisis. The succession of the next Supreme Leader remains a critical issue, and the political dynamics following Raisi's death will be closely watched. The coming weeks will offer a glimpse into the transition when Khamenei dies.

In the near term, there is little evidence that a new Iranian president would bring significant domestic or foreign policy changes. A new president would be inherently weaker than Raisi, needing to demonstrate allegiance to hardline actors while building a rapport with the populace—an inherently challenging task. Looking further ahead, barring massive protests that could potentially lead to regime change, the regime will likely evolve toward a post-revolutionary generation of leaders drawn from and accountable to networks connected to the Revolutionary Guard.

Iran's foreign policy would probably remain assertive, avoiding actions that could trigger a regime-threatening war with the United States. Support for proxy groups would continue, and Iran would persist in its efforts to build political, security, and commercial ties with Asia, Russia, Africa, and Latin America.

Implications for international relations

Raisi's foreign policy was characterised by engagement without compromise, regional assertiveness, and periods of aggression on nuclear issues. While Western policymakers expect the first two, they will be uncertain about the last point. A weaker president might also grant the Revolutionary Guards more freedom in their activities abroad. Some may also wonder if a new president could open the door to severe diplomatic engagement.

Following Raisi's death, the regime faces multiple challenges: ensuring a smooth political transition, maintaining internal stability, preventing unrest, managing international relations, and upholding the ideological purity of the revolution. The regime's response to these challenges will shape Iran's future, domestically and internationally.

Dr Aliabadi has two decades of military, government, and private-sector consulting experience. He hosts a current events podcast (RoozCast), which Feedspot named among the top 30 geopolitical podcasts. Dr Aliabadi is currently serving on the Advisory Board of GGA International Group, for whom this brief was written.