Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Co-published with The Conversation:

EA on France 24 and Ireland’s RTE: How Significant is Death of Iran’s President Raisi?

Iran’s President and Foreign Minister Dead in Helicopter Crash

Who was Ebrahim Raisi?

Raisi was a dedicated servant of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rising through the judicial system in the 1980s, Raisi came to prominence as a member of the “death committee” imposing capital punishment on thousands of detainees in 1988, at the end of the Iran’s war with Iraq.

The exact number of those who were sentenced to death is not known. But human rights groups have estimated conservatively that about 5,000 men and women were executed in what has been described as a crime against humanity. Raisi denied his role in the death sentences, but also said they were justified because of a religious ruling by Khomeini.

Serving as Deputy Chief Justice, Attorney General, and then Chief Justice, Raisi crafted an image as being tough on corruption while also puring opponents of the regime. In 2016, he was appointed by the Supreme Leader to oversee the Astan Quds Razavi religious foundation, which controls tens of billions of US dollars.

In June 2021, Raisi was installed as President in Iran’s managed elections, handing leadership back to hardliners. He was seen as the candidate of the Supreme Leader, with the clerical establishment moved to promote his election and impeding and disqualifying challengers.

How big of a blow is losing Raisi for the regime?

Raisi was considered loyal to Khamenei and often took on the role of a scapegoat to help the Supreme Leader avoid criticism. It is because of this loyalty that — despite being seen as unexceptional and even weak by many in Iran’s political system — he was mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei.

But, in itself, the loss of Raisi has little effect on the Iranian system. He was largely a placeholder representing the wishes of the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guards and hardliners.

The bigger challenge is replacing Raisi with a minimum of in-fighting in the Iranian regime, maintaining the ostracism of reformists and centrists and suppressing any protests.

Following the crash, Khamenei reassured Iranians there would be “no disruption to the work of the country”. How true is this claim?

The Supreme Leader’s statement is best understood as a call to Iranians to avoid “disruption”, given the series of nationwide protests that erupted after the contested result of Iran’s 2009 presidential election.

The incumbent President at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the outright winner against many people’s expectations. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the largest demonstrations since the Islamic Republic’s formation in 1979. Widespread unrest followed as thousands of people were arbitrarily arrested and scores were killed on the streets or died in detention.

Khamenei’s rhetoric is also an “all is well” proclamation defying the serious economic problems and regional tensions that Iran faces. Iran’s economy has been in a parlous state for years, through a combination of mismanagement and sanctions. The currency is at a historic low, having lost 93% of value since 2018. Inflation remains above 40% officially and far higher unofficially. And unemployment is high, especially among the younger generation.

The regime continues to suppress protests through detentions and intimidation. But demands for reforms are still widespread. They have been galvanized by the regime’s crackdown over compulsory hijab. Iran’s authorities have tried to quash centrists as well as reformists, but face a backlash from public criticism, including that of former President Hassan Rouhani.

Who will replace Raisi?

First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber is interim President, with elections — mandated by the Iranian Constitution within 50 days — to be held on June 28.

The process will be an accelerated version of the standard procedure, with the 12-member Guardian Council vetting all candidates and disqualifying those deemed not acceptable. That should ensure a contest between a hardliner and a conservative, blocking any high-profile centrist or reformist.

Different factions within government will be maneuvering for the Supreme Leader’s favor. Raisi’s occupancy has signalled the ascendancy of hardliners throughout the regime, pushing aside conservatives. However, there is no clear hardline favorite at this point.

Meanwhile, Parliament Speaker and former residential candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf may be the most likely conservative. He has been at the forefront of Iranian politics for 25 years. But he has also failed in two Presidential campaigns, and is unacceptable to many hardliners.

What could Raisi’s death mean for stability in the Middle East and beyond?

The regime will want to avoid any further turmoil in the regime while it rearranges the desk chairs of power. This includes the replacement of foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who had played an important role in trying to present Tehran’s case to the world and finding ways to ease the impact of western sanctions.

The open question is whether Israel, embroiled in its war in Gaza and serious domestic tension around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will return to attacks on Iranian interests, such as its targeted assassinations of Tehran’s commanders in Syria and Hezbollah officials in Lebanon.

See also EA Special: Israel, Iran, and the “Indirect War”