Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 22 May 2024


What Raisi’s Death Means for the Future of Iran

For a country facing deep challenges, and with an aging Supreme Leader, the President’s demise has spawned an existential question: Who can sustain the revolution?
People carrying images of late Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Photograph by Arash Khamooshi / NYT / Redux

I last interviewed Ebrahim Raisi, the ultra-hard-line President of Iran, during his début appearance at the United Nations, in 2022. He spoke belligerently and with such speed that the interpreter struggled to keep up. He was the same on the U.N. dais, where he furiously waved a photo of General Qassem Soleimani and demanded that Donald Trump be tried for ordering his assassination—a “savage, illegal, immoral crime”—in a U.S. drone strike, in 2020. Back home, Iran was in turmoil after nationwide protests erupted in response to the death, in police custody, of a twenty-two-year-old named Mahsa Amini. She had been arrested for improper hijab; too much hair was showing. Raisi’s government ordered a brutal crackdown; security forces eventually killed more than five hundred protesters and arrested nearly twenty thousand. During an interview with a handful of journalists, conducted in the chandeliered ballroom of a New York hotel, Raisi was asked about the protests. “We’re all professionals,” he said, and insisted that we focus on the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program “rather than diverting to other issues.”

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Raisi, who had a manicured white beard and wore a black turban signifying his descent from the Prophet Muhammad, offered no hint of diplomatic compromises over the growing tensions with the West, as three of his predecessors had done during their U.N. visits. He instead boasted of a shifting world order that mobilized America’s rivals. After his election, in 2021, Raisi oversaw Tehran’s expanding military coöperation with Russia, which included the transfer of hundreds of drones for its war in Ukraine. He tightened ties with China, which is now the main importer of Iranian oil, thus bailing Iran out of the sanctions noose created by Washington. At home, however, Raisi was “derided for incompetence” and often the butt of relentless Persian humor, Vali Nasr, the former dean of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, told me. Raisi invoked tougher enforcement of the hijab and restricted personal freedoms, which in turn sparked the widest protests against the regime since the 1979 Revolution. He was arguably Iran’s most unpopular President. “Whoever succeeds him could be construed by the public as an improvement,” Nasr added. Raisi was also the first President to be personally sanctioned by the U.S.

Raisi died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. He was flying back from the country’s border with Azerbaijan, in the northwest, where he had celebrated the opening of a new dam with his Azerbaijani counterpart—a symbol of Iran’s strengthening relations with nations in the Caucasus. He flew in a convoy of three helicopters. Two landed safely after navigating thick fog over remote and rugged mountains. Raisi flew in a vintage U.S.-manufactured Bell helicopter, a model purchased during the monarchy in the nineteen-seventies. (Bell stopped producing it more than twenty-five years ago.) Iran has struggled to maintain its aging aircraft, and U.S. sanctions have complicated access to spare parts. Despite early conspiracy theories about deliberate sabotage of Raisi’s helicopter, which spread feverishly across social media, Iran attributed the crash to a “technical failure” after the charred wreckage was finally found early on Monday in a dense mountain forest. Eight others, including Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, were also killed.

Raisi died at a precarious time for a revolutionary regime that is ever more xenophobic, paranoid, and rigid. His legacy is “a sharp deterioration of Iran’s relations with the West, owing to the failed efforts to negotiate a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, increasingly close military ties with Russia, and the perilous tit for tat with Israel,” Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, told me. His successor will have to deal with “deep social and economic discontent, regional instability and tension, and, over the longer horizon, the fate of the Islamic Republic.”

The theocracy in Tehran is in deep trouble on every front. “The divide between the population and leadership has only increased—as evidenced by public apathy” at parliamentary elections held in March, Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, told me. Only forty-one per cent of eligible voters cast ballots—the lowest percentage since the revolution. The reason for public disillusionment is partly economic. Inflation hovered at thirty-five per cent in February; the Iranian rial plummeted to an all-time low last year. Under Raisi, the government cut back on food and fuel subsidies and did little to sustain support for health, education, and welfare. The average Iranian feels trapped in economic purgatory. And, in April, the regime, which has the largest missile arsenal in the region, was humiliated militarily. It fired more than three hundred ballistic missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for Israel’s attack on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Syria, which killed three top generals. Iran’s weaponry either failed, was shot down, or was intercepted by Israeli, U.S., and Jordanian forces, among unnamed others. The U.S. called Iran’s brazen operation “embarrassing” and a “spectacular” failure.

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Raisi’s demise also comes at a time when the regime is down to a small core. Like other revolutions, Iran’s has eaten its own. Past Presidents of widely diverse views—including Hassan Rouhani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mohammad Khatami, and Hashemi Rafsanjani—have been viciously sidelined, officially silenced, denied foreign travel, or prevented from running for office again. The first President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, shaved his trademark mustache and secretly fled the country wearing a skirt. Vice-Presidents have been imprisoned. A former Prime Minister and a speaker of parliament have been under house arrest since 2011. The list of acceptable political candidates—who are tightly vetted by a twelve-man Guardian Council of Islamic clerics and jurists—is tiny. “Raisi was not a beloved or charismatic figure,” Vakil told me. He was best known among Iranians as a ruthless justice minister and earlier for his role on a “death commission” that dispatched some five thousand dissidents to the hangman over a matter of weeks in 1988. “He was a loyal apparatchik,” Vakil added. But “the circle of obvious functionary leaders continues to shrink, and it will be hard to find one person to tick the Presidential, ideological, and succession boxes that Raisi seemed to fit.”

Iran’s policies—both foreign and domestic—are unlikely to budge even a bit. But the nation is deeply shaken about the future. For the regime’s supporters and dissidents alike, Raisi’s death has spawned an existential question: Who will lead Iran, especially with the looming death of Ayatollah Khamenei? The Supreme Leader, who has been the ultimate power in the Islamic Republic since 1989, turns eighty-six in July; he has suffered from prostate cancer. Raisi, who was a Khamenei acolyte from Mashhad, the holiest city in Iran and a pilgrimage site visited by millions of Shiites every year, was widely expected to oversee the transition. (He was due to run for reëlection next year and, if successful, would have held power until 2029.) Raisi had even been floated as a potential successor to Khamenei. “Raisi’s death disrupts the plans the hard right has had all along to consolidate power,” Nasr said. Vaez noted, “His death introduces a major element of uncertainty” and “heightens the already significant stakes for his successor.”

The succession race is now “wide open,” Nasr added. The other name that has long been floated is Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s fifty-five-year-old son and closest adviser. But choosing him would create a clerical dynasty, and the revolution was all about ending one family’s control of all levers of power. A big question is who else can emerge as a viable candidate for President—a new election has been set for June 28th—who also has the credentials to be a potential successor to the Supreme Leader. Khamenei himself was President when he was elevated to the role of Supreme Leader after the death of Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution. There have been no other transitions. “All viable candidates with name recognition, capable of winning without controversy, are from the more middle-of-the-road conservative camp or moderates of the Rouhani type,” Nasr told me. Insisting on a hard-right candidate who “no one believes is credible” is risky, he said. The regime needs turnout now more than ever to prove that the Islamic Republic can endure. If Tehran rehabilitates more moderate candidates, Vakil said, “it will point to the importance of building stronger domestic consensus at the élite and popular level.” The transition is already likely to be chaotic behind the scenes.

The stakes are not just about one man at the top, however. Since the revolution, the central dispute has been whether the Islamic Republic of Iran is foremost Islamic or a republic. In other words, should it adhere rigidly to God’s law outlined in the Quran and bestow political supremacy on clerics? Or does it embrace man’s law, based on a modern constitution, and invest the most power in elected representatives of the people, with the clerics as advisers? Centrists like Rouhani (Raisi’s predecessor) and reformers like Khatami (three Presidents ago) wanted to nudge a revolutionary regime in the direction of a normal state that assured more personal freedoms and engaged with the world, including the U.S. This fundamental debate within the regime has resonated in all major policy decisions. In recent years, the absolutist ideologues have quashed all others.

After Raisi went missing, Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, quickly took to social media—including in English, on Twitter, which is otherwise banned in Iran—to reassure the nation. He pledged stability during the transition of power. “The nation doesn’t need to be worried or anxious as the administration of the country will not be disrupted at all,” he wrote. Mohammad Mokhber, the most senior of Iran’s twelve Vice-Presidents, will serve as acting President until a new election is held, within fifty days, as mandated by the constitution. Mokhber fought with the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq War, in the nineteen-eighties, then worked in the Mostazafan Foundation that oversaw benefits to the “oppressed” and families of the fallen. (The wealthy foundation and its fifty subsidiaries were sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020.) Mokhber also worked at Sina Bank. (It was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 for providing financial support to a paramilitary group that “recruits and trains child soldiers.”) He then joined Setad, a vast financial network controlled by the Supreme Leader. (It, too, has been sanctioned by the U.S.) But Mokhber may only be a placeholder, as Vice-Presidents have historically not been considered successors to the head of government. Ali Bagheri Kani, the lead Iranian negotiator in talks revived by the Biden Administration on Iran’s nuclear program, will become interim foreign minister. (In the end, Iran balked at the terms, and the initiative collapsed.)

The initial U.S. reaction to Raisi’s death was low-key. The State Department expressed “official condolences.” In a statement, it said, “As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” It confirmed that Tehran reached out to the U.S. for assistance after the crash and that the U.S. agreed, as it would do “in response to any request by a foreign government in this sort of situation,” the spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters. (Ultimately, the U.S. was not able to provide that assistance because of logistical issues.) The White House was tougher. John Kirby, the strategic coördinator for the National Security Council, told a small group of reporters on Monday that Raisi was responsible for “atrocious” acts of repression and had a major role in aiding proxies in ways that contributed to the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th. “This was a man who had a lot of blood on his hands,” he said. Tehran charged that the U.S. was partly responsible for the crash, since U.S. sanctions had hampered Iran’s ability to get spare parts to maintain the aging American aircraft. “Utterly baseless,” Kirby said. “But it’s not surprising that the Iranian regime would once again try to find a way to blame the United States for problems of its own making.” ♦

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