Repercussions of the death of Raisi

Walid M Abdelnasser, Tuesday 28 May 2024

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will not lead to any major changes in the country’s policies, but it will influence the selection of the next guide, writes Walid M Abdelnasser


The sudden death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in Iran as he was returning from the Iranian-Azeri border poses a number of yet unanswered questions regarding the implications of his death for the future of the Iranian political scene.

It is well known to observers of Iranian politics that since the leadership of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in February 1979, the Iranian political system has been based on creating some sort of relative balance among several centres of power and decision-making organs in the country.

There is also the need to recall two facts. First, supreme authority in Iran has rested with the “Guide” of the Revolution since the adoption of the first constitution of the Islamic Republic back in 1979. Second, subsequent amendments to the 1979 Iranian constitution, particularly one adopted directly following the death of Khomeini in 1989, have led to two main results.

The first has been to transfer some of the authority of the Guide to other institutions in the Iranian political system, on the basis of the belief that Khomeini was the historic leader of the revolution and that none of his successors should enjoy the vast powers he did. The second has been that these amendments reflect a tendency to ensure that no single institution in the state has leverage over the others, so that there is some sort of balance among these institutions and none of them is allowed to monopolise the decision-making process.

In historical perspective, the Iranian political system over the four-and-a-half decades of its existence has seen a proliferation in the number of institutions of the state, whether legislative, legal, political, economic, social, or cultural. Although some of these institutions have not been officially affiliated to the state, they have all been led by figures appointed by the Guide of the Revolution or by others close to him. Moreover, they have all been integrated into a grand scheme led by the Guide and influenced by other state institutions. It goes without saying that this proliferation of institutions has not affected the supreme authority of the Guide himself.

In the light of the above, it is not expected that Raisi’s death will have any major impact on the future of the political system in Iran. However, there is no doubt that some calculations will be affected by Raisi’s sudden disappearance, particularly as unexpected presidential elections will now take place on 28 June within 50 days of his death and in line with the provisions of the Iranian constitution.

We need to recall here that this year has already witnessed the election of the members of the Council of Experts, mandated with the choice of the country’s next Guide. The current Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 85 years old, and there is a need to get ready for the selection of his successor. The elections to the Council of Experts did not pass smoothly, due to the fact that some state institutions, and according to some versions of the story they were supported by the Guide himself, were inclined to disqualify some candidates from within the ruling elite with reformist orientations from running in them.

There was a strong tendency to choose Raisi for several reasons. First, he had been a close and loyal disciple of the current Guide. Second, ideologically he belonged to the same “conservative” camp as the current Guide and enjoyed the support of institutions, forces, and figures belonging to that same camp. Third, the idea of the incumbent president becoming the Guide following the death of the latter is not unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic.

This was the case when Khamenei, who was president of Iran in 1989, was selected to succeed Khomeini.

These considerations become more relevant when we recall that Raisi was in the third year of his first presidential mandate and was expected to be re-elected for a second term in 2025. This assumption was based on the fact that since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 all Iran’s presidents have been elected for two consecutive mandates, with the exception of the first two, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who was ousted from office by Khomeini after less than two years in office, and Mohammad Ali Rajai, who was killed in an explosion planned by the opposition Mujahedin-i-Khalq group only days after his election.

There is no doubt that conservative circles in the ruling elite in Iran will seek to choose another figure to be ready to succeed the current Guide quickly when he dies. Although some observers refer to Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the current Guide, who is also a Shia cleric (alim), to succeed his father, others exclude this option for a good reason. They argue that even Khomeini himself, with all his popularity and power, did not arrange for his son or any of his relatives to succeed him, and introducing hereditary succession now would be an important precedent for this and other senior posts in the Islamic Republic.

Another issue that will come up very soon and constitute another test of the ability of the Iranian political system to mobilise popular support will be the presidential elections in June. The question will be how high the turnout and popular participation will be. This is particularly important as official statistics show that participation in the 2021 presidential elections was the lowest in the history of such elections in the Islamic Republic and the only one when the participation rate was below 50 per cent.

This low turnout was interpreted in different ways. Some saw it as reflecting the political apathy among sectors of the Iranian population, while others attributed it to what they considered to be a rise in discontent as a result of prevailing political, economic, and social conditions. A third point of view held that since the state institutions led by the Guide were clearly supporting Raisi, there was little point in voting as he would get elected in any case.

Although Raisi’s sudden death will not lead to any serious change in the orientation, strategy, and policies of Iran in the near future, it will definitely influence some forthcoming developments related to the political system, including the selection of the next Guide and the forthcoming presidential elections on 28 June.


The writer is a diplomat and commentator.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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