Iran’s uneasy search for a president

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 23 May 2024

With the death of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran may face succession problems in its leadership.

Iran s uneasy search for a president


When Ebrahim Raisi was elected the eighth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in August 2021, he was widely seen as the most likely heir apparent for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had been grooming him for the role for decades.

Raisi, 64, was killed in a helicopter crash in the mountainous northwest reaches of Iran on Sunday along with other officials including the country’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, raising the question of how much the drama might shake the regime in Tehran.

The charred wreckage of the helicopter was found in a mountainous area near the border with Azerbaijan early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions. Raisi’s death was later confirmed in a statement by Iranian Vice-President Mohsen Mansouri on state television.

Khamenei immediately sought to reassure Iranians that there would be no disruption in state affairs. Yet, the death sparked speculation about who will succeed the ageing Khamenei as Iran’s paramount leader.

It could also trigger a debate about the implications of a new leadership in Iran on its relations with the outside world and in particular with regional powers. The detente with Saudi Arabia and the conciliatory tone with Egypt were outliersof Iran’s foreign policy under Raisi.

The sudden death came as Iran under Raisi and Khamenei faced a major direct military conflict after the unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel last month following a period of a proxy confrontation or tit-for-tat retaliation cycle.

Before his accession to the presidency,Raisi served in several positions as prosecutor and deputy prosecutor of Tehran, deputy chief justice, attorney general and chief justice. He also served as custodian and chairman of the Razavi Shrine in Mashad, Iran’s most revered Shia holy site.

Born into a strictly religious family in Mashhad, Raisi started his career as a religious scholar in Iran’s Islamic regime, where he underwent extensive theological training and held the prestigious title of “authority on Islam.”

According to his official biography, he also received a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence and law from Shahid Motahari University in Tehran.

Raisi, a hardliner, drew Khamenei’s attention as he continued to show an uncompromising commitment to the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary founding principles, raising speculation that he was being groomed by the Supreme Leader as his potential successor.

Under Iran’s constitution, the first vice-president, in this case Mohamed Mokhbar, and a council consisting of the first vice-president, the speaker of parliament, and the head of the judiciary take over in the event of the president’s death with the confirmation of the Supreme Leader until a new president is elected within a maximum of 50 days.

Any would-be contender must be approved by the Guardian Council, a group of clerics and lawyers which decides who is allowed on the ballot.

However, Iran’s politics is a closed system entirely under the control of its ruling theocracy, and the Supreme Leader has the final say in all matters of state in the multi-ethnic country.

The institutions of state and politics are nominally separate, and Iran is sometimes referred to as having a “multiple-track” political system, in which separate roles are maintained for government, legislative, military, judicial, and political positions.

While the process of finding a replacement for Raisi could be relatively quick, the most intellectually honest answer to the question of who will succeed the 85-year-old Khamenei as the country’s Supreme Leader is simply that no one knows.

Constitutionally, only a prominent cleric with serious political experience can become theSupreme Leader in Iran, known as the vali faqih. It is the Assembly of Experts that is charged with appointing and overseeing the Supreme Leader, whose members are approved by the powerful Guardian Council.

Throughout the past 45 years, observers have disagreed about the nature of Iran’s factional politics, and some have even questioned whether real differences exist between the so-called moderate, conservative, and ultra-conservative groups in the country.

Irananalysts and intelligence experts have different opinions on the succession to Khamenei, although they might all agree that there is a lot at stake as Iran passes through a new and delicate transition.

While some believe that there are several other claimants to the post who could secure the appointment by becoming closer to Khamenei, others believe that theclosed political process in Iranmakes the succession more complicated and intriguing.

Some in the first camp believe that the succession to Khamenei has already been decided even if the candidates are not anointed far in advance or disclosed publicly. They say a number of clerics who command the support of Khamenei and his inner circle, including his sonMojtaba Khamenei, are frontrunners for the post.

Nevertheless, others expect that the selection of a new Supreme Leader will set off a fierce scramble for power that might involve the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and consequently have an impact on the smooth and safe transition of power and even the future of the regime.

The Islamic Republic has seen power struggle over the public sphere, governance, the security forces, the media, and the economy before.

One major show of factional infighting was demonstrated in the controversy over the presidential election in 2009, which triggered disagreements between the government and the opposition over the result.

Supporters of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi accused the government of rigging the ballot in favour of sitting president Ahmed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The protests soon turned violent, and apolitical movement that arose after the election was called the Iranian Green Movement and lasted until early 2010. It demanded the removal of Ahmadinejad from office.   

One recent power struggle was revealed by former foreign minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, who shed light on the deep mistrust by the IRGC of former president Hassan Rouhani.

In his book The Depth of Patience, Zarif, who served as foreign minister during Rouhani’s tenure, disclosed that IRGC commanders did not share their decision to attack US bases to retaliate for the killing of Iranian Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in January 2020.

Previously, both Rouhani and Zarif had come under fire by hardliners in the system for negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with the major world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

All eyes now are on two pressing issues: revealing the real cause of the helicopter crash that killed Raisi and his companions, and the next presidential election, which should be held in 50 days according to the constitution.

Much is still unclear about the 16 May helicopter crash, which has been attributed by the authorities to bad weather. Many Iranians have begun to speculate about government ineptness, nefarious motives, or even an outside conspiracy and are demanding the truth.

Raisi’s succession could be uneasy, especially finding an ideal consensus candidate for a factious regime. There are increasing fears that moderate politicians will be banned from the vote, as the regime did in the March parliamentary elections, which were largely boycotted by Iranian voters.

Among key possible contenders are Acting President Mohamed Mokhber,  ParliamentarySpeaker Mohamed Baqer Qalibaf, and Judiciary Chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i.

The three men have hardline credentials and are believed to command the support of the main conservative political factions and many outlets of the IRGC.

Tightening the noose on potential opposition and moderate candidates and restricting the race between a small circle of notoriously hardline regime loyalists will deepen the legitimacy crisis of the regime and undermine Iran’s political structure.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that Raisi’s death is bad for Iran, which has been caught unprepared for a change of guard while struggling to meet domestic and foreign challenges.


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

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