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The Death of President Raisi Will Shake Up Iran’s Succession Plans

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Following last weekend’s deadly helicopter crash, Ayatollah Khamenei is running out of time to manage the future of the Islamic Republic.

On Sunday, May 19, a helicopter crash in northeastern Iran Eastern near the Azerbaijani border claimed the lives of President Ebrahim Raisi, his Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the head of the presidential security team, Brigadier General Mehdi Mousavi, Malek Rahmati, the governor of Iran’s Eastern Azerbaijan province, as well as pilots and another bodyguard. This incident represents a pivotal moment in Iran’s political drama and prompts considerations of the potential consequences and shifts that may follow the president’s unexpected death.

Despite the prominence of his role, Raisi’s death is unlikely to cause severe disruptions in Iran’s administrative and executive apparatus. While the presidential office is a critical component of Iran’s power structure, true control, especially over the bureaucracy and major national issues, largely resides with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Iran’s highest authority by constitutional design, the Supreme Leader wields substantial influence. He not only sets the national agenda and oversees the judiciary and armed forces but also ensures that candidates for executive positions, particularly in essential ministries such as Intelligence, Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs, are vetted by his office first. This centralization of power in the hands of the Supreme Leader ensures that Iran’s administrative machinery remains stable and operational, even in the absence of its president.

Furthermore, President Raisi’s background as a judicial figure rather than a seasoned bureaucrat suggests that his absence might not critically impact administrative continuity. In fact, in Raisi’s cabinet, the chief bureaucrat was his vice president, Mohammad Mokhber. Unlike Raisi, who was deeply entrenched in judiciary and security roles, Mokhber embodies the quintessential bureaucrat with extensive administrative expertise.

Mokhber previously headed the massive “charitable” foundation known as the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO)—also referred to as “Setad”—for about fifteen years. As a result, he has been pivotal in managing a significant portion of Iran’s domestic economy. Setad, with a net worth of nearly $100 billion, stands alongside the Executive branch and the IRGC as one of the crucial pillars of Iran’s economy. With such a background, Mokhber is well-prepared to temporarily assume presidential duties and ensure governmental stability, leveraging his bureaucratic acumen where Raisi’s expertise was more judicial and security-focused.

In this context, it is safe to argue that the immediate ramifications of President Raisi’s death are not critically destabilizing. However, the long-term implications for Iran’s political future are quite significant. As a protégé of Khamenei and one of his former students, President Raisi was widely viewed as a potential key figure in the post-Khamenei succession and possibly even the next supreme leader. His sudden demise removes a critical thread from the intricate tapestry of Iran’s future leadership dynamics, potentially altering the course of succession and the balance of power within Iran’s political hierarchy.

To fully appreciate the impact of Raisi’s death on Iran’s political landscape, it is essential to consider the trajectory of his rise to power. Since 2014, the Islamic Republic of Iran has strategically elevated Ebrahim Raisi from a relatively obscure judiciary position to one of the highest offices in the land. This transformation began with his appointment as the prosecutor general in 2014, a role that increased his visibility. Later, in 2016, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Raisi as superintendent of the Imam Reza Shrine and Foundation, which not only manages the only holy shrine of Shia Imams in Iran but also oversees a conglomerate of businesses and endowments. This role further cemented his stature within both the political and religious spheres. His rise continued as he entered the Expediency Discernment Council, and by 2019, he ascended to the position of chief justice of Iran, culminating in his election as president in 2021.

This decade-long grooming process underscores a calculated effort by the regime to prepare Raisi for a pivotal role in the post-Ayatollah Khamenei era. The regime’s meticulous positioning of Raisi suggests that he was either a leading candidate to succeed Khamenei or a trusted figure poised to ensure a smooth transition of power to the designated successor. The succession process is managed by the Assembly of Experts of the Leadership in secret.

With the removal of Ebrahim Raisi from the political scene, the Islamic Republic faces a significant crisis, exacerbated by the sidelining of other potential conservative leaders who might have ensured a smooth transition of power. During the process that elevated Raisi, influential figures such as Ali Larijani, former Speaker of the Parliament, his brother Ayatollah Amoli Larijani, a former Chief Justice, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the current Speaker, were marginalized. This strategic sidelining included disqualifying Ali Larijani from the 2021 presidential race, Amoli Larijani’s resignation from the Guardian Council, and subjecting Ghalibaf to relentless criticism from conservative media, which accused him of incompetence and corruption.

This orchestrated reduction of viable conservative leaders has created a vacuum in the wake of Raisi’s unexpected demise. The Islamic Republic now faces the daunting task of identifying a new guarantor for the leadership transition, a role critical for maintaining stability and continuity. This situation may lead to increased uncertainty within the political hierarchy as the search for a consensus candidate becomes more urgent.

While the Islamic Republic grapples with the search for a new guarantor of its leadership transition, there are still notable figures who could potentially fill this role. One such individual is Ali Reza Arafi, a member of both the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council and the former chairman of Al-Mustafa International University, a key clerical institution for international students. Arafi was once considered a likely candidate for leadership, but his prospects dimmed with the rise of Raisi. With Raisi’s unexpected departure, the spotlight may shift back to Arafi or similar figures, rekindling their chances in the evolving political landscape.

However, the challenge remains significant. The Republic must initiate a comprehensive promotional campaign akin to the one that bolstered Raisi, a task complicated by the advanced age of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is eighty-five. Time may not be on Khamenei’s side to orchestrate another extensive grooming process for a successor, posing a critical strategic dilemma for the regime’s continuity plans.