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22 May 2024

Iran after Raisi

The president’s death raises an urgent dilemma for the regime.

By Nahayat Tizhoosh

Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, is dead. He takes with him any hopes that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had of placing the Islamic Republic in the hands of one of his most loyal servants.

The helicopter crash on 19 May, which killed Raisi and Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, along with six other passengers, was unforeseeable. Khamenei, the country’s 85-year-old ruler, is now forced to rethink his plans for succession. He had groomed Raisi for years to take his position, elevating him with every step in the supreme leader’s career. Raisi in turn, diligently, loyally and brutally helped Khamenei hold on to power for over three decades.

Often referred to by the international media as a “hard-liner”, Raisi is known to many Iranians as the “Butcher of Tehran” instead. In 1988, as the deputy prosecutor-general of the city, Raisi served on a “death commission” that signed off on the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners. Raisi had no qualms helping the then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini purge the Islamic Republic of any organised opposition (a task he continued to carry out under Khamenei’s leadership from 1989).

As the head of the state’s judicial system from 2019 to 2021, Raisi oversaw brutal crackdowns on peaceful dissent, granting impunity to officials and security forces responsible for unlawfully killing hundreds, including the November 2019 anti-regime protests. His efforts were appreciated by the government. Khamenei selected Raisi to run for president in 2021 and the Guardian Council blocked any other well-known candidate from opposing him. (The election had the lowest-ever turnout since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.)

He had very little credibility with the public. Raisi, who left school at 15 to pursue religious studies, was often mocked by Iranians for his grammatical errors and illiterate blunders in his speeches. But he was feared. As president, Raisi would also continue to use the legal system and the police state to crackdown on protests – most recently in 2022 and 2023 as waves of “women, life, freedom” protests swept the country and at least 550 were killed and tens of thousands detained.

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It is that bloody legacy that prompted Iranians to celebrate his death. Social media – one of the few avenues to gauge public sentiment in the tightly controlled state – captured the Iranian public’s gleeful response to the crash. Hashtags, videos and posts mocked the way the officials died. (Amir-Abdollahian, who flippantly denied the killing of a child during the regime’s 2022 crackdown on protests, was also widely despised.)

Well-known victims of the regime’s crackdowns shared videos of their celebrations. Other videos showed people celebrating with fireworks and handing out sweets on the street. Women who had been blinded by the security forces during protests filmed themselves happily dancing. Many Iranians celebrated the helicopter crash as the only means of seeing “justice served”.

In stark contrast to the Iranian public’s reaction, officials from the US, EU and Nato bafflingly responded to the deaths with tone-deaf statements – many tweeted condolences to the families of the sanctioned men and a Nato spokesperson went so far as to express condolences to “the people of Iran” – all of which completely ignored the regime’s track record. 

The response underscores the West’s stubborn blind spot to the shifting sentiment that has swept through Iran over recent years. Decades of oppression by the country’s Islamist rulers have not produced a docile population conforming to Khamenei’s brutal world-view. Instead, it has driven the liberalisation and secularisation of the Iranian masses, making the chasm between the populace and the state irreversible.

Not that the state will acknowledge it. With Raisi gone, Khamenei is most concerned with ensuring the continuation of the Islamic Republic. Before Raisi’s death was even confirmed, Khamenei tried to reassure the Iranian public that there would be no disruptions in the administration of the state. 

Formally, he has followed procedure, appointing a first vice-president as the interim head of Iran’s executive branch. A presidential election to choose Raisi’s replacement has been set for 28 June. The country is once again poised for a staged and engineered election, just months after parliamentary elections elicited historically low voter turnout.

This was already a fraught period for the regime. The ongoing regional turmoil following the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza, coupled with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the escalating conflict with Israel weigh heavily on Khamenei’s agenda – not to mention the growing economic despair and unrest within Iran.

Khamenei is not only seeking a president and successor he trusts to carry on his legacy, but he’s also aiming to avoid significant public backlash. With Raisi gone, Khamenei’s 55-year-old son is left as the only viable successor to the supreme leader. However, many analysts believe that selecting Mojtaba Khamenei – a cleric and hugely unpopular figure – could trigger another popular uprising. (So unpopular, in fact, that during the “women, life, freedom” protests, a common protest chant was “Mojtaba, bemiri, rahbari ro nabini“, meaning: “Mojtaba, may you die before you see the leadership.”) Given Khamenei’s track record, it is plausible that he may double-down and nominate his son. The cleric could place more value on his legacy than the fear of impending revolt.

More worryingly, some analysts have suggested the transition phase could provide the notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with an opportunity to expand its already immense control and influence within the regime. Khamenei, whose early days as supreme leader were marked by instability, has shrewdly used the IRGC to bolster his own authority – in doing so, granting it broad autonomy. Regardless of who succeeds Khamenei, the IRGC will seek to maintain its nearly uncontested authority in the country. The prospect of a power struggle within that organisation, prompting instability throughout Iran, can’t be discounted. Such a scenario could also have geopolitical consequences across the region.

Over the next few days, the Iranian authorities will be desperate to divert attention from the public’s celebrations of Raisi’s death. With days of funeral ceremonies planned, they are likely to mobilise and even financially incentivise their base of supporters to stage displays of public mourning, aiming to project an image of widespread popular support.

Even if the authorities succeed in quelling the jubilation, it is clear that opposition to the regime will only increase and there is little Khamenei or his eventual successor can do to stop it. For now, the Iranian people are celebrating the sudden demise of two men they blame for their suffering.

[See also: What the left and right get wrong about the politics of family]

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