May 21, 2024

IntelBrief: Iranian President’s Death Compounds Regional Turmoil

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The death of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19 will not lead to a reorientation of the government’s domestic, regional, or global policies.
  • A special election for a new president is to be organized within 50 days, and the regime will likely ensure that the candidate field is narrowed to figures similar in policy orientation to Raisi.
  • The sudden death came amid reports of additional indirect meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials, brokered by the Sultanate of Oman.
  • Raisi’s death improves the chances that Khamene’i’s 55-year-old son, Mojtaba, could be elevated to Supreme Leader upon his father’s passing.

The unexpected May 19 death of Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi in the crash of the helicopter returning him and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian from an official visit to neighboring Azerbaijan will not produce any short-term changes in Iranian domestic or regional policies. Raisi’s passing will scramble the internal maneuvering to succeed Iran’s 85-year-old Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i. The crash comes amidst major regional turmoil triggered by the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli ground offensive in Gaza, as well as ongoing public unrest within Iran that caused turnout for parliamentary elections on March 1 to be the lowest since the Islamic Republic came to power in 1979.

Leaders from around the region, including Iran’s adversaries in the Persian Gulf, offered condolences, while leaders of exiled opposition groups issued statements focused on Raisi’s past role in sentencing regime opponents to death and calling for a popular uprising. U.S. officials said President Biden was briefed on the helicopter crash but, in light of significant tensions between the United States and Iran, there was no immediate official U.S. reaction to the Raisi death announcement on Monday. Some groups claimed, without providing any evidence whatsoever, that the helicopter crash was a deliberate act by any number of potential suspects, including Israeli intelligence, the United States, internal competitors of Raisi for higher office, and regime opponents. Some senior Iranian figures blamed the crash on U.S. sanctions that prevent sales of new aircraft to Iran or a steady flow of aviation spare parts for the U.S.-made aircraft still operated by Iran’s civil aviation sector.

After promising stability and governmental continuity and declaring a five-day mourning period, on Monday the Supreme Leader approved the temporary elevation of First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as interim President, in line with constitutional requirements. According to Article 131 of Iran's constitution, Mokhber, the speaker of Iran’s Majles (parliament), and the head of the judiciary are to constitute a council that will prepare the way for the election of a new president within a maximum of 50 ys. Also on Monday, Iran's cabinet appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani -  the chief negotiator with global powers on Iran’s nuclear program - as acting foreign minister following the death of Amir-Abdollahian. Bagheri-Kani has been the chief liaison to U.S. officials who, over the past year, have conducted indirect talks with Iran in and mediated by the Sultanate of Oman.

U.S. media outlets reported that additional U.S.-Iran indirect meetings have taken place in Oman in recent weeks, following the major April 13 Iranian missile and drone attack on Israel, focused primarily on preventing Iran-backed attacks in the region from escalating into U.S.-Iran conflict. The regime also increased its deployment of IRGC, law enforcement, Basij mobilization units, and other security forces around the country to prevent opposition groups from trying to take advantage by orchestrating celebrations of Raisi’s death or organizing anti-regime demonstrations.

Raisi’s death is likely to intensify maneuvering to succeed not only Raisi but also the Supreme Leader himself. Using its powers to vet candidates, in 2021, the regime screened out all moderate candidates for president, paving the way for Raisi to win handily with 62% of the vote. The regime also shaped the candidate field in the March 1 Majles elections, ensuring that hardliners who unquestioningly support government domestic and foreign policy dominate that body as well. The Supreme Leader is almost certain to limit the candidate field of those competing to replace Raisi in the upcoming special election.

One potential candidate, Majles Speaker Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, a hardliner and former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official who has run for president unsuccessfully several times previously, might potential earn Khamene’i’s favor to succeed Raisi. Qalibaf is not a Shia cleric and therefore could not hope to use the presidency as a stepping stone to succeed Khamene’i as Supreme Leader, but neither he nor any other likely presidential candidates would be willing or able to question or alter any existing policies. At the very least, Qalibaf, or any other hardline candidate that has close ties to the IRGC, would be likely to continue to delegate to the IRGC broad authority to work with Iran’s regional allies to pressure Israel on all its borders in implementation of Iran’s “unity of fronts” regional strategy that has roiled the region since October 7. On the other hand, the short, 50-day election time frame complicates the regime’s efforts to build enthusiasm for its preferred candidate and encourage a high turnout. But, even if Iranian leaders allow more moderate figures to run in the special election, there is little time for them to rally reformist and moderate voters to pose a challenge to the hardline figures the Supreme Leader is certain to promote.

Perhaps the more politically significant outcome of the sudden passing of Raisi is the longer-term alteration of the competition to succeed the elderly Supreme Leader. Khamene’i seemed to be grooming Raisi for eventual succession by engineering his election not only as president in 2021 but also concurrently, to a seat on the 88-member Assembly of Experts in elections to that body on March 1. That assembly, which is empowered to choose a Supreme Leader upon the death of an incumbent was to gather on Monday, for the first time since its election.

After Khamene’i persuaded several of the more elderly figures not to run again for Assembly seats, Raisi reportedly was the favorite to be chosen as Assembly of Experts Chairman – a perch that would have given him a clear edge to succeed Khamenei if the Supreme Leader passed away during the Assembly’s eight-year term. In political experience and in positioning to work the mechanics of governance, Raisi had significant advantage over Khamene’I’s son and chief of staff, Mojtaba Khamene’I, to ascend to Supreme Leader. Raisi’s passing appears to remove the obstacles to Mojtaba’s succeeding his father, who played a key role in denying former two-term President Hassan Rouhani the opportunity to run for re-election to the Assembly on March 1. Still, should Rouhani or another figure seek to challenge Mojtaba for Supreme Leader, they might argue that Mojtaba lacks the practical political experience that the constitution stipulates as a requirement. In addition, the concept of a hereditary Supreme Leader defies Shia convention, potentially causing many Assembly of Experts members to hesitate to elevate Mojtaba.

When Khamene’i himself was named Supreme Leader in 1989, the Assembly of Experts did not even consider selecting the son of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as successor. Critics will also undoubtedly claim, with justification, that Mojtaba’s religious credentials do not meet the standards of that required to be Supreme Leader. Still, no matter who wins the special election to succeed Raisi, or who is front runner to become the next Supreme Leader, no figure that ascends to either position is likely to deviate from existing regime foreign and national security policies, or try to end Iran’s estrangement from the United States and its European allies.

All viable contenders for both positions express unqualified support for Iran’s strategy of arming and funding a wide network of non-state actors that can pressure Israel, the United States, and other Iran adversaries anywhere in the region – either in reaction to or separate from the October 7-related Mideast crisis. All senior contenders support, to varying degrees, rapprochement with the Arab states of the Gulf. And no major regime figure has expressed any hesitation to use force to suppress the waves of demonstrations and unrest that have erupted several times in the past five years.