What Raisi’s death means for Iran’s future

The president’s sudden death in a helicopter crash creates uncertainty for the country amid regional turmoil

An Iranian man follows the news of the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran.
An Iranian man follows the news of the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran.

What Raisi’s death means for Iran’s future

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi died on Sunday when a helicopter carrying him and a delegation of other Iranian officials crash-landed in the mountains of northern Iran, throwing the future of the country and the region into further doubt.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and other top officials were also killed in the crash as the group was travelling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, the Iranian state-run Islamic Republic News Agency confirmed. Dense fog impeded search and rescue operations for hours before the crash site was found. The fog was so thick that it forced the Iranians to call on the support of European Union satellites to help locate the helicopter.

Raisi’s death puts a coda on a short but transformative era in Iranian politics that saw the country lurch in a hard-line direction and threatened to bring the Middle East to the brink of regional war. In nearly three years in power, Raisi moved Iran’s domestic politics and social policy in a more conservative direction and pushed the country further into the role of clear US antagonist in the region after his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani—who defeated him in the 2017 presidential election—first sought a detente with the West over Iran’s nuclear program before stepping up proxy attacks.

An Islamic jurist noted for his close relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and considered by many officials and experts as a likely candidate to succeed the ageing supreme leader, Raisi’s tenure saw Iran speed up uranium enrichment and slow down negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after the United States exited the deal in 2018, three years before he came into office.

Iran under Raisi also supported Russia in its war against Ukraine with extensive exports of Shahed suicide drones and artillery; increased attacks by regional proxy militias against the United States and Israel after Hamas’s October 2023 cross-border attack on Israel; and just a month before his death launched a massive drone and missile attack against Israel.

Experts say that regardless of who replaces Raisi, the strategy he pursued is unlikely to change, having been solidified among the higher echelons of Iran’s political and clerical leadership.

Experts say that regardless of who replaces Raisi, the strategy he pursued is unlikely to change.

"With Raisi, without Raisi, the regime is quite content with the way the post-Oct. 7 Middle East has been shaking out," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow focused on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). "It's been able to continue its death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy, firing directly against the U.S. and Israel via proxy and then even directly a few times itself with the tit-for-tat you saw in April, and still look like it won the round."

Under the Iranian Constitution, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber is likely to fill in as head of the cabinet for the next 50 days until elections can be called. Recent parliamentary elections drew record-low turnouts, analysts said. What's more, significant effort was expended by Khamenei and his allies to ensure Raisi's win during the last presidential election in 2021, disqualifying potential rivals. 

Before becoming president, Raisi served on Iran's prosecution committee that was responsible for executing an estimated 5,000 dissidents in 1988. He had been accused of crimes against humanity by the United Nations and was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department. And that heavy-handed approach continued with the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran's morality police in September 2022 after allegedly not wearing a hijab properly in public, which sparked nationwide protests. 

Beyond the horizon of snap elections and the presidential election set for next year, there is potential for upheaval at the top of Iran's ruling class. With a short line of possible successors to the 85-year-old Khamenei, other than the head of state's son, Mojtaba Khamenei, Raisi's death could throw the country's political future into further turmoil. 

Motorists drive their vehicles past a billboard depicting named Iranian ballistic missiles in service, with text in Persian reading "Israel is weaker than a spider's web" in central Tehran on April 15, 2024.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the largest branch of the Iranian armed forces that controls major swaths of the country's economy, could also use the upheaval to strengthen its hand.

"There is no heir apparent if he's gone," said David Des Roches, a professor at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and retired US Army colonel. "What's really interesting is to see if the IRGC will basically complete a slow-motion coup."

As rescue workers searched for Raisi's downed helicopter, state media asked the Iranian people to pray for him. Instead, in the wake of reports of the crash, some Iranians appeared to light celebratory fireworks, cheering the demise of the hard-line leader.

"Today's crash & likely death of president Raisi and his (foreign minister) will shake up Iranian politics," Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and a longtime Iran expert, wrote in a post on X before the president's death had been confirmed. "Regardless of the cause, perceptions of foul play will be rife within the regime. Ambitious elements may press for advantage, compelling reactions from other parts of the regime. Buckle up." 

While experts said it was unlikely that a liberalising figure would emerge in either snap elections or Iran's 2025 presidential election, Raisi's death could leave a small opening for resurgent protest movements that have persisted under the surface. 

"These movements are not dead," said Ben Taleblu, the FDD expert. "They operate on the low level, on the periphery—usually strikes, labour unions, that kind of thing. It could lead to a nationwide trigger, and it could be a nothing burger. But the story of the Iranian protest movement is always a matter of when and not if."

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