Challenges after Raisi’s death

Manal Lofty, Tuesday 21 May 2024

As investigations into the helicopter crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi earlier this week continue, any evidence of foul play could shift the country’s national security doctrines, writes Manal Lofty

Challenges after Raisi s death


The moment Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei learned of President Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash in a mountainous region near Iran’s border with Azerbaijan, he recognised that over a decade of efforts to cultivate a trusted circle of conservative politicians to implement his vision and sustain his political legacy had suffered a significant blow.

Raisi, a pivotal figure within this circle, was central to Khamenei’s vision for Iran’s future. His demise thus represents more than a dilemma in selecting a trusted successor, but also signifies a substantial setback in Khamenei’s long-term strategy to position his loyalists at the helm of Iran’s top institutions.

Many questions remain unanswered about the circumstances surrounding the Iranian president’s death in the helicopter crash that took place on Sunday. The authorities in Iran have not yet officially announced the cause of the accident, as they are awaiting a detailed technical investigation of the helicopter’s fuselage, navigation data, and autopsies of the bodies of the Iranian president and his companions.

This investigation may take days or even weeks.

However, there are urgent issues that Khamenei has sought to address swiftly, most notably setting the date for new presidential elections for 28 June to choose a new Iranian president. Ali Bagheri has been appointed as Iran’s acting foreign minister after the death of Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, also killed in the crash alongside Raisi and other officials.

The deaths of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian have come at a time when Iran can ill afford a political vacuum at the upper levels of the state.

The Middle East is experiencing a period of rapid and turbulent developments, presenting both challenges and opportunities in an ever-changing regional landscape. Iran stands to gain or lose significantly from the current events. The country is deeply involved, both directly and indirectly, in providing military, financial, political, and ideological support to allies and proxies including Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria

Bagheri is expected to uphold existing policies with Tehran’s regional allies. Officials from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are anticipated to play a significant role in supporting the Foreign Ministry until a new president is elected and government formed.

Iran is also navigating a crucial phase in its relations with the Arab countries. During Raisi’s presidency, Iranian-Saudi relations experienced a significant improvement, with the resumption of diplomatic relations, the exchange of ambassadors, and the signing of security and economic agreements. Ties between Tehran and Cairo also warmed.

Raisi also strengthened Iran’s ties with Russia and China, consolidating military relations with Moscow and supplying it with drones and other military equipment. Iranian-made Shahed drones have been critical in helping Russia in its war in Ukraine. When news of Raisi’s death broke this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised him as an “outstanding politician” and said his death was an “irreplaceable loss.”

Iranian oil exports to China and Chinese investments in Iran increased significantly during Raisi’s time in office.

At the same time, Iran’s relations with Europe and the US deteriorated following the failure to revive the nuclear deal between Iran and the Western powers, exacerbated by Iran’s decision to increase its uranium enrichment to 60 per cent under Raisi’s presidency.

“Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has grown accustomed to absorbing shocks, and the recent events are no exception. Although the sudden deaths of President Raisi and the foreign minister were entirely unexpected, the regime has demonstrated its ability to neutralise the impact and manage the aftermath,” an Iranian diplomat who previously worked in the country’s Foreign Ministry told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“We are living in a highly volatile time. I believe the presidential helicopter crash will prompt the authorities to become more proactive regarding security. There are concerns that external forces might attempt to exploit the president’s death to incite unrest or create crises, aiming to portray the Iranian regime as fragile and losing control. I anticipate a heightened focus on security, especially given the ambiguity surrounding the circumstances of the crash.”

“If external interference is confirmed in relation to the crash, we could be facing a dangerous situation,” he said.

Even before the crash, there was talk in Iran about changing the country’s nuclear and national security doctrines. Officials like Kamal Kharazi, Iran’s former ambassador to the UN and an adviser to Khamenei, talked about the possibility of transforming the nuclear programme from civilian to military if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Any indication that this week’s helicopter accident was planned or carried out by an external party could be tantamount to an act of war. If there are suspicions about the incident, Khamenei will face choices of unprecedented difficulty unparalleled since he took office in 1989.

According to the little information known so far, the helicopter either did not have a transponder or had turned it off, according to an initial investigation by the Turkish rescue team that found the wreckage. A transponder is an electronic device that communicates with air traffic control systems and other aircraft.

Turkish Transport Minister Abdulkadir Uraloğlu told reporters that the Turkish authorities had checked for a signal from the helicopter’s transponder that broadcasts height and location information. “Unfortunately, [we think] most likely the transponder system was turned off or that the helicopter did not have one,” he said.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin denied any US role in the crash and said there was no reason to think it was anything other than an accident.

“The United States had no part to play in that crash. That’s a fact, plain and simple,” he told reporters on Monday during a briefing. He also said that he did not see any broader security impacts from the death of Raisi.

“We continue to monitor the situation, but we don’t have any insights into the cause of the accident at this point,” Austin said, calling the crash “very unfortunate.”

The US State Department confirmed that Tehran had requested Washington’s help in searching for Raisi’s helicopter, but Washington had failed to meet the Iranian request for reasons described as “logistical.”

With the loss of Raisi, Khamenei now faces three main challenges, the first being to ensure that it does not provoke internal unrest.

Since the crash, calls for demonstrations have spread on social media and among Iranian opposition groups, and the Iranian authorities are aware of the potential for opponents to exploit the situation.

The second challenge is to agree on a list of candidates for the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for 28 June, a task that will be far from easy. The new president will also assume office amid unprecedented regional and international political and security challenges.

Khamenei is 85 years old and in poor health, and he will be aware that he may not have the opportunity in the next four years to place his loyalists at the helm of Iranian institutions. The selection of candidates to succeed Raisi, vetted by the country’s Council of Guardians, will be one of the most crucial decisions Khamenei and his inner circle will make.

Several prominent conservative figures are expected to enter the race, including former speaker of parliament Ali Larijani, current speaker Mohamed Baqir Qalibaf, former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and Khamenei Advisor Ali Shamkhani.

Although reformists will also attempt to nominate candidates, it is unlikely that they will be permitted to return to power. The reformists’ goals of improving relations with the West, reaching a nuclear agreement, and lifting sanctions contrast starkly with the views of Khamenei and the conservatives, who believe the West seeks to overthrow the regime.

The leadership of the Revolutionary Guard Corps will also likely play a significant role in selecting qualified presidential candidates due to the challenging regional environment, further diminishing the chances for reformists.

The third challenge relates to Khamenei’s own position as Supreme Leader. One of Raisi’s many advantages was that he was a strong candidate to succeed Khamenei, and his absence now poses a significant challenge.

Arrangements for appointing a Supreme Leader in Iran extend beyond religious qualifications. While traditionally the position has required the status of Ayatollah, the highest religious and jurisprudential rank in Iran, it is also a political role. The Supreme Leader sets the direction for the Iranian state, making it essential to choose a candidate who can gain the consensus of clerics, Revolutionary Guard leaders, Iranian citizens, and the influential business class.

With Raisi now gone, Khamenei must start from scratch in identifying and preparing other suitable figures, knowing that it will be his successor who will shape Iran’s internal and external policies in the coming years.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: