EXPLAINER: What happens when an Iranian president dies in office?

EXPLAINER: What happens when an Iranian president dies in office?
Succession and stability in Iran following the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi / CC: Tehran Times
By bne Tehran bureau May 19, 2024

The death of President Ebrahim Raisi following a helicopter crash at the age of 63 has sent shockwaves through Iran, and now the process of finding his successor begins. 

According to the Iranian constitution, the mantle of leadership now falls to the first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber. However, his ascent to the presidency is contingent upon the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This sudden shift in leadership highlights the unique structure of Iran’s political hierarchy as well as the next supreme leader role which was pegged for Raisi. At the apex is the Supreme Leader, who wields ultimate authority over the state. The president, as head of the government, serves as the second-in-command, managing the day-to-day affairs and representing the country on the global stage.

The unexpected death of a sitting president thus places the first vice president in a critical position, tasked with maintaining continuity and stability during a potentially turbulent transition.

Mohammad Mokhber, known for his administrative prowess and loyalty to the principles of the Islamic Republic, is now poised to step into the role of acting president. His immediate challenge will be to reassure both the Iranian populace and the international community of Iran’s stability and continued adherence to its policies.

The Supreme Leader's endorsement will be crucial in legitimizing Mokhber's temporary leadership, setting the stage for the next phase of governance.

According to Iranian law, Mokhber’s tenure as acting president is limited to a 50-day period, during which an election must be held to choose a new president. This accelerated timeline imposes a significant burden on the nation’s electoral infrastructure and political institutions. In a country where political dynamics are complex and often contentious, the rapid organization of a presidential election could exacerbate existing tensions.

The immediate implications of Raisi’s death and Mokhber’s potential interim presidency are multifaceted. Domestically, the government must address ongoing economic hardships and public discontent, which have been exacerbated by international sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mokhber's leadership will be scrutinised for its effectiveness in navigating these challenges and maintaining public order.

On the international front, Iran’s foreign policy, particularly regarding its nuclear programme and relations with neighbours and Western nations, will come under intense observation. The transition period could either present an opportunity for diplomatic engagement or risk escalating tensions, depending on the actions and rhetoric of Iran’s interim leadership.

The Supreme Leader’s role in this transition cannot be understated. Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for Mokhber will be pivotal in ensuring a smooth handover of power and mitigating potential power struggles within the Iranian political elite. His guidance will likely shape the interim administration’s policies and strategic decisions during this critical period.