What's next for Iran after President Ebrahim Raisi's death?


Tuesday, 21 May 2024 (09:32 IST)
The helicopter crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, along with other high-ranking officials, has sent shock waves across the Middle East.
Raisi was returning home on Sunday after traveling to Iran's border with Azerbaijan to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev when the helicopter experienced a "hard landing" in the remote mountainous region of East Azerbaijan province, according to state media. The circumstances of the crash remain unclear.
Many different assumptions and unconfirmed reports are now likely to circulate in Iran, said Sara Bazoobandi, Iran expert at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies think tank in Hamburg.
"The cause could have been an accident or material fatigue, but also sabotage, possibly involving someone from within Raisi's political circle. Nothing can be ruled out, everything is conceivable," she said.
Iranians would likely be hoping for more details regarding the crash to emerge in the coming days and weeks, she added.
Regime strives to maintain order
Iran's Islamic clerical regime, meanwhile, has been trying to maintain order and normalcy.
The Cabinet vowed that the government's work will go on "without the slightest disruption" and said that "we assure the loyal nation that the path of service will continue with the tireless spirit of Ayatollah Raisi."
The Guardian Council, an archconservative supervisory body, also declared: "With God's help, the affairs of the nation and the people will continue without interruption."
Mohammad Mokhber, Iran's first vice president, has been appointed as acting president of the Islamic Republic. He is expected to serve as caretaker president for some 50 days before a mandatory presidential election.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, within whom ultimate power is vested in Iran, announced Mokhber's appointment in a condolence message he shared for Raisi's death.
Mokhber, 68, had so far largely stayed in the shadows compared with other politicians in Iran's Shiite theocracy, but he has now been thrust into public view. He shares good ties with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), according to Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"Mokhber's ties to the IRGC's core leadership will guarantee that the IRGC's role in Iran's administration will remain intact and even intensify," the expert wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "His interim presidency may pave the way for even more overt IRGC control over administrative policies."
New election likely, but no surprises expected
Bazoobandi said the election will likely be held within the mandated 50-day period. "However, it is safe to assume that these will not be legitimate elections this time either. Sham elections will be held," she said, referring to the last presidential contest in 2021, which Raisi easily won.
The election will take place as the country struggles to navigate a raft of geopolitical and economic challenges. Many Iranians are facing economic distress, with inflation at over 50%, rising utility, food and housing prices, and a plummeting rial currency.
The government, meanwhile, has increasingly used capital punishment. Iran executed 853 people in 2023, according to Amnesty International, the highest total since 2015. Rights groups have said the regime is carrying out more hangings as a means to instill fear in the wake of protests that erupted in autumn 2022.
The political and economic situation is contributing to growing public disenchantment with the system, and could lead to even fewer people participating in the next election, said Bazoobandi.
"They don't trust the regime and have little hope of change. In addition, many citizens assume that the result is already known before the elections anyway," she said, adding that the most interesting question is who will replace Raisi. "It cannot be ruled out the current vice president will take over."
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes Raisi's death "would create a succession crisis" in Iran.
"He and Mojtaba Khamenei are the only contenders to replace 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (Mojtaba's father)," he wrote on X. "In Iran's conspiratorial political culture few will believe Raisi's death was accidental."
Widespread protests uncertain with 'largely disillusioned' opposition
The death of Raisi, a hard-liner seen as a potential successor to Khamenei, is likely to reignite the debate about who will become the next supreme leader.
While Khamenei has not endorsed a successor, Iran watchers have said Raisi was one of the two names most often mentioned, the second being the 55-year-old Mojtaba, who is widely believed to wield influence behind the scenes.
However, some have raised concerns over the position going to a family member, and many believe such a decision will be rejected by large sections of the population.
"Mojtaba Khamenei's anointment as Supreme Leader could trigger popular unrest," wrote Sadjadpour. "His lack of legitimacy and popularity means he'd be entirely reliant on the Revolutionary Guards to maintain order. This could hasten the regime's transition to military rule or its potential collapse."
But Bazoobandi believes new mass protests in the country are unlikely. "The regime crushed the protests following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini two years ago with such brutality that the opposition population is largely disillusioned," she said.
She said there won't be any change of course under the new interim president. "Raisi received his instructions from Khamenei. He was a puppet. And it won't be significantly different with the next president."
This view is shared by Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Amwaj.media, a website focusing on Iranian affairs.
"Early presidential elections could provide Khamenei and the upper echelons of the state with an opportunity to reverse course in a face-saving way and give disillusioned voters a way back into the political process," he said. 
"However, that would require a strategic decision to do a U-turn and expand a political circle that has been steadily shrinking. So far, the inclination of the political establishment has been to double down on conservative rule."
Azizi, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, also echoed this view, and doesn't believe Raisi's death will have a significant impact on the theocratic regime's grip on power.
"Overall, the implications of Raisi's death would not be fundamental or a decisive blow to the system. It will impact intra hard-liner competition but not the strategic direction of the Islamic Republic in foreign or domestic politics."

Read on Webdunia

Related Article