Raisi's death deals significant blow to Khamenei's project

With the position of Khamenei's successor now up for grabs, the fate of Iran and the region hangs in the balance

Raisi's death deals significant blow to Khamenei's project

Since the Iranian "revolution" in 1979, presidential elections have held very little significance, as ultimate power lies with the Supreme Leader. This was true under Iran's first Supreme Leader, Ali Khomeini, and remains true under his successor Ali Khamenei.

In practice, the Iranian president is merely the head of the executive branch, which is primarily concerned with the economy and managing internal power estruggles between reformists and conservatives.

This is the context that frames the death of President Ebrahim Raisi (along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other officials). Since news of the president’s helicopter crash broke, Khamenei immediately addressed the Iranian public, assuring them that the country's affairs would not be affected.

The Guardian Council announced that First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber would succeed Raisi and a committee comprising Mokhber, the Speaker of Parliament, and the head of the judiciary was tasked with holding new elections in 50 days. Meanwhile, the government stated that "Raisi’s path will continue."

All indications suggest that the transition of power will be smooth. The nation is in mourning, and there is significant regional sympathy following the tragic deaths of the president, foreign minister, and other senior officials in the helicopter crash.

Raisi's sudden death has dealt a significant blow to Ali Khamenei's project. Raisi was believed to be the favoured candidate to succeed him as Supreme Leader.

In this sombre atmosphere, there should be little appetite for the usual mudslinging between reformists and conservatives that typically precede elections. The country appears united, consolidated, and determined to proceed with the transition and elect a new president in less than two months. This is the image Iran is trying to project.

Significant blow

Scratching beneath the surface, however, lies the potential for unrest, disagreements and masked ambitions. Raisi's sudden death has dealt a significant blow to Ali Khamenei's project—one that should be carefully safeguarded by whoever assumes the position of Supreme Leader after he passes away.

Read more: What does Khamenei want for Israel and the region?

And Raisi was the favoured candidate to succeed Khamenei, who has been Iran's top leader for 45 years and counting—his rapid rise under Khamenei's patronage in the past eight years gave credence to this prediction.

In 2015, Raisi was chosen to preside over a senior religious body and then the judiciary. In 2017, he ran for president but lost to Hassan Rouhani. Later, his path was quickly cleared after his rivals were neutralised, allowing him to win the presidency in 2021. This trajectory is quite similar to Khamenei's, who first became Iranian president in 1981 and then Supreme Leader in 1989. 

This spring would have cemented another pivotal moment in Raisi's path to becoming Supreme Leader. The Assembly of Experts—an 88-member body responsible for electing the Supreme Leader, which convenes every eight years—was set to hold a particularly crucial meeting. Given Khamenei's old age (85), the assembly was expected to select his successor.

With the position of Khamenei's successor now up for grabs, the fate of Iran and the region hangs in the balance.

At Khamenei's behest, Hassan Rouhani had been taken out of the running for both the Supreme Leader and president. Like other prominent figures before him—such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ali Larijani, and Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the revolution's leader and Guide, Ayatollah Khomeini—he has been sidelined in what looks like a carefully orchestrated campaign to eliminate Raisi's political rivals.

The succession had been narrowed down to Raisi, who was seen as Khamenei's 'political son', and Mojtaba Khamenei, his biological son. Although the Supreme Leader has hinted at times that his son Mojtaba would not be in the race, his promotion to the rank of Ayatollah in August 2022 reignited his ambitions. Conservatives generally support Raisi, while the merchants and economic elite lean towards Mojtaba, who is seen as the more neutral choice.

The role of the IRGC

But with its oversized influence and military power, it is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that arguably shapes the country's decisions and foreign policy. Although it does not directly intervene in internal politics, its tacit approval is needed to win most influential posts. The IRGC functions as a "state within a state" in Iran and extends its influence to other countries within Iran's regional sphere of influence.

Raisi's death also comes at a time of mounting regional turmoil: Israel's war on Gaza, Israel's military exchanges with Hezbollah in Lebanon, competition for influence in Iraq between Iran and the US, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's attempt to distance his country from Iranian control and pivot to the Arab world, and most recently, direct confrontation between Iran and Israel.

Raisi's death is hugely significant and will impact both Iran's domestic and foreign politics. With the position of Khamenei's successor now up for grabs, the fate of Iran and the region hangs in the balance.

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