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Iran’s Leader Dies in Office: What Happens Now?

Rescue team members work at the scene of the helicopter crash carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, in northwestern Iran on Monday.
Rescue team members work at the scene of the helicopter crash carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, in northwestern Iran on Monday.
Iran's First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber speaks during Iran's government cabinet on Monday in Tehran, Iran.

Iran’s First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber speaks during Iran’s government cabinet on Monday in Tehran, Iran.

 

Ebrahim Raisi, once viewed as the likely successor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has died in office, leaving the Islamic Republic’s hardline establishment facing an uncertain future. The 63-year-old ultraconservative president, along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other high-ranking officials, was killed on Sunday in a helicopter crash in Iran’s remote northwest. This tragedy strikes at a delicate time for Iran, which is contending with unprecedented challenges both domestically and internationally.

Iran’s economy remains crippled by stringent American sanctions, leading to widespread economic distress. The country’s youthful population is increasingly restless, demanding more freedoms and better living conditions. Additionally, Iran faces growing hostility from adversaries in the Middle East and beyond, further compounding its internal struggles.

 

Rescue team members work at the scene of the helicopter crash carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, in northwestern Iran on Monday.

Rescue team members work at the scene of the helicopter crash carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, in northwestern Iran on Monday.

 

In the immediate aftermath of Raisi’s death, power was transferred to Mohammad Mokhber, who served as Raisi’s vice president. On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved Mokhber as acting president. While not as prominent as Raisi, Mokhber is considered a reliable administrator closely linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other levers of power. According to Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, Mokhber is likely to maintain a “business as usual” approach in the coming days, reflecting the hardliners’ grip on power. Real political alternatives to Iran’s hardliners have been systematically excluded from recent elections, further entrenching the status quo.

However, Raisi’s death necessitates a presidential election within the next 50 days, as stipulated by Iranian law. The state news agency IRNA announced that the presidential election will take place on Friday, June 28. Candidates can register from May 30 to June 3, with campaigning set to run from June 12 until the morning of June 27. Experts predict that the elections will be hastily organized and suffer from poor voter turnout. In March, Iran recorded its lowest electoral turnout since the 1979 revolution, despite the government’s efforts to mobilize voters. This low participation underscores the population’s growing disenchantment with the political process.

Trita Parsi, co-founder and Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, noted that the population has largely lost faith in achieving change through elections. The March elections, which excluded moderate politicians like former President Hassan Rouhani, further tightened the circle of hardliners poised to continue Khamenei’s conservative rule.

Until a new Supreme Leader is appointed, significant policy shifts are unlikely. Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group, emphasized that the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards make the final decisions on domestic and foreign policy, suggesting continuity rather than change in Iran’s approach. This stability is expected to persist in both regional policy and Iran’s nuclear program.

Raisi’s untimely death also raises significant questions about who will succeed the 85-year-old Khamenei. Raisi was heavily backed by the clerical establishment as a potential heir to Khamenei. His demise has created a “succession crisis,” according to Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Raisi’s hardline policies, including the suppression of the 2022 protests against repressive laws like the compulsory hijab, were indicative of the regime’s direction under his leadership.

The constitution assigns the 88-member Assembly of Experts the responsibility of choosing the next Supreme Leader after Khamenei’s death. However, the Assembly is dominated by hardliners, with its members pre-vetted by the powerful Guardian Council, which oversees elections and legislation. In the March elections, Raisi was re-elected to the Assembly, and moderates like Rouhani were barred from running, reinforcing the hardline dominance.

Discussions about the Supreme Leader’s succession are notoriously opaque and conducted within a very tight circle. Some speculate that Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, a mid-level cleric, could be a contender for the top post. However, this potential shift from the revolutionary principles that rejected hereditary rule could provoke significant controversy and conspiracy theories about Raisi’s death.

Raisi’s rivals are likely to maneuver to fill the power vacuum he leaves. Ali Vaez noted that Raisi’s death disrupts any succession plans the Supreme Leader’s office may have had, but the Islamic Republic has a deep bench of loyal political actors ready to step in.

On the international front, Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian played pivotal roles in reshaping Iran’s foreign relations, including normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia with China’s mediation, while also escalating tensions with Israel. Nevertheless, Iran’s foreign policy is primarily the domain of the Supreme Leader and the Supreme National Security Council, indicating that Raisi’s death will not drastically alter Iran’s external strategy.

Looking ahead to the upcoming election, some experts believe it could be a critical juncture for Iran. The regime might use this election to reintroduce sidelined moderates to restore some legitimacy. Supreme Leader Khamenei has historically emphasized voter turnout as a measure of the system’s legitimacy, and leveraging this election to rejuvenate public participation could be significant.

However, whether Khamenei will allow such a shift remains uncertain. The hardline establishment’s stronghold on power has left little room for moderates, and the population’s faith in the ballot box remains severely eroded. The election presents a potential opportunity for change, but given the regime’s history of excluding genuine reformists, substantial shifts in Iran’s political landscape seem improbable in the near term.

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