Leadership Crisis in Iran: The Aftermath of President Raisi’s Death

Anil Trigunayat

The untimely death of President Ebrahim Raisi has caused a leadership vacuum, as he was mostly slated to succeed the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, who is 85 and is said to be ailing.

The rough weather in northwest Iran took the lives of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian on Sunday (May 19), along with seven others, in a helicopter crash while returning after inaugurating a dam in East Azerbaijan with his Azerbaijanian counterpart, Ilham Heydar oghlu Aliyev. The two Presidents looked happy and comfortable despite some intra-regional competition, especially in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The death of President Raisi, along with his foreign minister, has indeed caused a vacuum on key developments and initiatives, especially at this time when the region is going through a highly volatile war in Gaza, which threatens to expand beyond.

In March and April, Iran and Israel had nearly come to a direct confrontation that could be avoided due to pragmatism and intervention by the US and others in the region. Limited strikes saved the face for both.

President Raisi, despite his conservative approaches domestically, tried to be pragmatic even as, under his watch, Iran continued on its path to increase the enrichment of uranium to keep the pressure on the West and pursued the quest to acquire parity with Israel in the nuclear domain. Perhaps the biggest credit could go to him for the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, along with working for a regional modus vivendi with the Arab world. His Act East policy also brought about closer relations with India and China while they worked to closely enrich ties with Russia.

At the same time, in the wake of Abraham Accords and the further potential normalisation of ties between key Arab countries and Israel, Tehran emerged as a major protagonist of the Palestinian cause, given its hold on Hamas in Gaza. However, the mutually assured destruction (MAD) syndrome between Tehran and Tel Aviv continues apace and could threaten stability in West Asia.

Raisi successfully secured the release of $6 billion in exchange for some US prisoners and even restrained Shia Iraqi militias from attacking US military assets. Although Iran has been able to blunt the impact of the severest sanctions to a considerable extent, it may have been severely compromised in the area of spare parts and technology.

The fact that the President was riding in a 15-year-old helicopter not only questions the choices of the pilot or the leadership in such a weather but also confirms the existence of restrictions on imports of spare parts that may have been imposed due to sanctions. What really caused the crash will only be confirmed by detailed investigations of the wreckage and Black Box.

The untimely death of President Raisi has also caused a leadership vacuum, as he was mostly slated to succeed the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, who is 85 and is said to be ailing. But as was witnessed in the wake of the helicopter crash, Khamanei immediately took hold of the situation, assuring the country that there would be no governance crisis. As such, he decides in the end, and the armed forces, security, and intelligence outfits, as well as the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), look up to him for instructions. He also did not want to convey to his detractors, both internally and externally, that they could exploit the crisis and the transition.

As for the succession issue, although the demise of Raisi has caused a vacuum, the argument for Mojtaba succeeding his father, Ayatollah Khamanei, would become more eloquent and vociferous even though the Supreme Leader personally appears not to be in favour of dynastic rule, as quoted by many insiders, for he would not like to be accused of nepotism. One more name that is being propounded to us is that of white-turbaned Ali Reza Arafi, whom the black-turbaned Supreme Leader called an original intellectual and prudent jurist.

One would have to see if the colour of the turbans would matter at all. He is a member of the Assembly and was also appointed to the Guardian Council. His name has been circulating for quite some time. In any case, the presidium of an assembly of experts will identify the next leader in due course. But the ‘Supreme Leader’ will also have to be accepted by the masses since Iran is facing significant domestic discontent as well as huge external challenges, especially from the West and Israel.

Of course, losing the President and foreign minister, especially at such a difficult time, is a challenge in itself for any country, but the real power lies with the Supreme Leader, who is au fait with his authority and capacity to guide the Iranians.

As per Article 131(1) of the Iranian constitution in the event of the president’s demise or incapacitation, the first vice president will take over with the approval of the Supreme Leader (de facto), and fresh elections will have to be conducted within fifty days. It reads, “In case of death, dismissal, resignation, absence, or illness lasting longer than two months of the President, his first deputy shall assume the powers and functions of the President with the approval of the Leader.”

Accordingly, Vice President Mohammed Mokhber has taken over the reins to conduct day-to-day affairs and organise elections with the head of judiciary and speaker of the Iranian parliament. Whether Mokhber will be de jure promoted remains to be seen. Whether the next president will be among the known contenders for the highest post in the country is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, messages of support and condolences have been pouring in. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on learning about the hard landing of the presidential helicopter yesterday, expressed India’s solidarity with Iran in this hour of their crisis in a tweet. PM Modi last met President Raisi in 2023 at the Johannesburg Summit, when India supported Iran’s entry into BRICS, and has spoken to him on regional and global issues on phone. Ministerial visits and interactions have continued apace.

Despite US and other sanctions, relations have remained steady, and only last week, India and Iran signed a long-term port management contract for the strategically located Chabahar port for India’s outreach to Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well as for the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Learning of his demise, PM Modi stated that Raisi’s contributions to strengthening the India-Iran bilateral relationship will always be remembered. Conveying his condolences to the family and people of Iran, he assured them that India stands with Iran in this time of sorrow.

Amb Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta and is a Distinguished Fellow with leading think tank Vivekananda International Foundation.

The article was first published in Firstpost as How President Raisi’s death will impact Ayatollah’s succession in Iran on May 20, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.