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Dhaka Tribune

What's next after Ebrahim Raisi's death?

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's sudden and unexpected death in a helicopter crash comes as the country struggles to navigate a raft of geopolitical and economic challenges

Update : 21 May 2024, 09:00 AM

The helicopter crash that killed Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, along with a few other high-ranking officials, has sent shock waves across the Middle East.

Raisi was returning on Sunday after traveling to Iran's border with Azerbaijan to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev when the crash happened in the Dizmar forest in Iran's East Azerbaijan province. The circumstances under which he died remain unclear.

Many different assumptions and unconfirmed reports are now likely to circulate in Iran, said Sara Bazoobandi, Iran expert at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) think tanks in Hamburg.

"The cause could have been an accident or material fatigue, but also sabotage, possibly involving someone from within Raisi's political circle. Nothing can be ruled out, everything is conceivable."

Iranians would likely be hoping for more details regarding the crash to come out in the coming days and weeks.

Regime strives to maintain order and normalcy

Iran's Islamic clerical regime, meanwhile, has been trying to maintain order and normalcy in the country.

The Cabinet vowed that the government's work will go on "without the slightest disruption" and said that "we assure the loyal nation that the path of service will continue with the tireless spirit of Ayatollah Raisi."

The Guardian Council, an arch-conservative supervisory body, also declared: "With God's help, the affairs of the nation and the people will continue without interruption."

The country's first Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, meanwhile, has been appointed as acting president of the Islamic Republic.

He is expected to serve as caretaker president for some 50 days before mandatory presidential elections in Iran.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, within whom ultimate power is vested in the Islamic Republic, made the announcement of Mokhber's appointment in a condolence message he shared for Raisi's death.

Mokhber, 68, had so far largely been in the shadows compared to other politicians in Iran's Shia theocracy, but he has now been thrust into public view. Mokhber shares good ties with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), according to Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

"Mokhber's ties to the IRGC's core leadership will guarantee that the IRGC's role in Iran's administration will remain intact and even intensify," the expert wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "His interim presidency may pave the way for even more overt IRGC control over administrative policies."

New elections likely, but no surprises

Bazoobandi said the new elections will likely be held within the mandated 50-day period. "However, it is safe to assume that these will not be legitimate elections this time either. Sham elections will be held."

The elections will take place as the country struggles to navigate a raft of geopolitical and economic challenges. Many Iranians are facing economic distress, with inflation over 50%, rising utility, food and housing prices, and the rial currency falling sharply.

Capital punishment, meanwhile, has been increasingly used. Iran executed 853 people in 2023, according to Amnesty International, the highest total since 2015. Rights groups say the regime is carrying out more hangings as a means to instill fear in the wake of protests that erupted in autumn 2022.

The political and economic situation is contributing to growing public disenchantment with the system, and could lead to even fewer people participating in the next elections, said Bazoobandi.

"They don't trust the regime and have little hope of change. In addition, many citizens assume that the result is already known before the elections anyway."

The most interesting question, however, is who will replace Raisi. "It cannot be ruled out the current vice president will take over," said Bazoobandi.

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment, believes that Raisi's death "would create a succession crisis" in Iran.

"He and Mojtaba Khamenei are the only contenders to replace 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (Mojtaba's father). In Iran's conspiratorial political culture few will believe Raisi's death was accidental," he wrote on X.

Widespread protests uncertain

The death of Raisi, a hardliner seen as a potential successor to Khamenei, is also likely to reignite the debate about who will become the next supreme leader.

While Khamenei has not endorsed a successor, Iran watchers say Raisi was one of the two names most often mentioned, the second being Khamenei's second son, 55-year-old Mojtaba, who is widely believed to wield influence behind the scenes.

However, some have raised concerns over the position going to a family member. And many believe such a decision will be rejected by large sections of the population.

"Mojtaba Khamenei's anointment as Supreme Leader could trigger popular unrest," wrote Sadjadpour.

"His lack of legitimacy and popularity means he'd be entirely reliant on the Revolutionary Guards to maintain order. This could hasten the regime's transition to military rule or its potential collapse."

But Bazoobandi believes new mass protests in the country are unlikely. "The regime crushed the protests following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini two years ago with such brutality that the opposition population is largely disillusioned."

The expert said there won't be any change of course under the new interim president. "Raisi received his instructions from Khamenei. He was a puppet. And it won't be significantly different with the next president."

This view is shared by Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Amwaj.media, a website focusing on Iranian affairs.

"Early presidential elections could provide Khamenei and the upper echelons of the state with an opportunity to reverse course in a face-saving way and give disillusioned voters a way back into the political process," he said.

"However, that would require a strategic decision to do a U-turn and expand a political circle that has been steadily shrinking. So far, the inclination of the political establishment has been to double down on conservative rule."

Azizi, the SWP expert, also echoes this view. He doesn't believe that Raisi's death will have a significant impact on the theocratic regime's grip on power.

"Overall, the implications of Raisi's death would not be fundamental or a decisive blow to the system. It will impact intra-hardliner competition but not the strategic direction of the Islamic Republic in foreign or domestic politics."

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