TEHRAN BLOG: The political aftermath of President Raisi's death in Iran

TEHRAN BLOG: The political aftermath of President Raisi's death in Iran
Iran's government called to emergency meeting following president and foreign minister's disappearance. / CC: IRINN
By bne Tehran bureau May 19, 2024

The death of President Ebrahim Raisi has triggered a political crisis in Iran, prompting urgent discussions among the nation’s elite about succession and the future leadership of the Islamic Republic.

According to the Iranian constitution, if the president dies or is incapacitated, the first vice president assumes temporary control, pending approval from the Supreme Leader. In this case, Mohammad Mokhber would step in as acting president. However, the succession process in Iran is more complex than merely following legal protocols. It involves intricate negotiations among the country’s elite to ensure continuity and stability.

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

Historically, such emergency transitions are managed behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, plays a pivotal role in this process, providing the necessary endorsement for any interim leader. This mechanism ensures that the governing structure remains intact and that there is no abrupt disruption that could destabilise the country. However, that period would have to finish at 50 days when a new election would have to be called.

The High Council’s Emergency Meeting

The Revolutionary High Council’s urgent convening indicates the severity of Raisi’s condition. Typically, such a meeting suggests that discussions are already underway about his potential successor. In Iran, the selection of a new leader is often handled by a committee of elites, comprising senior clerics, military officials, and political figures. This process is designed to maintain the status quo and prevent any sudden shifts that might arise from a public election.

In the past, similar scenarios have played out in other authoritarian regimes, such as in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where leaders like Saparmurat Niyazov and Islam Karimov died, and their successors were chosen through elite consensus rather than public vote. This approach minimises uncertainty and ensures that the interests of the ruling class are preserved.

Several potential candidates could emerge as Raisi’s successor, each representing different factions within Iran's political spectrum. Among the conservatives and hardliners, figures like Ali Larijani, a seasoned politician and former speaker of the parliament, and Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force, are prominent. Both are seen as maintaining the current conservative trajectory but with differing approaches to domestic and foreign policy.

On the reformist side, potential candidates include figures like Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president, and Abdolnaser Hemmati, the former governor of the Central Bank. These individuals are perceived as more moderate and open to reforms that could steer Iran towards a more pragmatic stance, especially in its economic and international relations.

There is also speculation about the possibility of a new face, someone who might embody a mix of conservative values with a reformist touch—much like Mikhail Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union. Such a leader could potentially bring about significant changes, balancing the demands for reform with the entrenched interests of the establishment.

Potential Changes in International Relations

Any change in Iran’s leadership will undoubtedly have ramifications for its foreign policy. The country’s relationships with key regional players and global powers, such as the Middle East, Russia, and Israel, could shift depending on the new administration's stance.

Under Raisi, Iran maintained a firm position against the United States and Israel, while fostering closer ties with Russia and China. A new leader might reassess these relationships, particularly if they come from a more reformist background. For instance, there could be renewed efforts to revive the nuclear deal (JCPOA) with the West, which could lead to a thaw in relations with the United States and Europe.

Iran's relationship with its Middle Eastern neighbours could also see changes. A more moderate leader might pursue dialogue with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to reduce regional tensions. However, a hardliner successor is likely to continue the current confrontational approach, emphasising military and strategic alliances with groups like Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria.

Regarding Russia, Iran's strategic alliance is likely to remain robust, especially given the mutual benefits in areas like military cooperation and energy. However, the dynamics of this relationship could evolve, with Iran potentially seeking to balance its ties between Moscow and Beijing more effectively.

Public and Market Reactions

The uncertainty surrounding Raisi’s condition has already impacted the Iranian economy, with the dollar exchange rate plunging as markets react to the political instability. Public sentiment is one of anxiety and anticipation, with mass prayers being held nationwide in holy cities like Mashhad, Qom, and Shiraz. Meanwhile, the dollar increased above IRR600,000 following the news about the president’s helicopter.

The lack of clear information has led to widespread speculation, including rumours of a possible assassination, although there is no evidence to support such claims. The government’s handling of this crisis will be critical in maintaining public trust and avoiding further economic turmoil.