President Ebrahim Raisi’s death deals blow to Iranian regime

President Ebrahim Raisi’s death deals blow to Iranian regime
President Ebrahim Raisi’s death deals blow to Iranian regime

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash has dealt a shock blow to the Islamic regime and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It was not that Raisi was a standout president pursuing radical policies that would reshape the republic’s future. Indeed, history will no doubt judge that his brief term had less impact than those of predecessors such as Mohammad Khatami, who pursued a more reformist agenda, or Hassan Rouhani, the centrist who was a key architect and advocate of the 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran signed with world powers.

But from the moment Raisi was elected president in 2021, succeeding Rouhani, he was considered integral to Khamenei’s plans to cement the influence of regime hardliners and ensure a smooth succession to the republic’s top post when the 85-year-old supreme leader eventually dies. It is the theme that has dominated Iranian politics during the past decade, and will continue to do so.

Raisi’s success at the ballot box was carefully — and conspicuously — choreographed with leading conservative and reformist candidates swept from running. The 63-year-old hardline cleric was widely considered to be a protégé of Khamenei’s, and a frontrunner to succeed him when the time came.

This year’s public vote for members of the Assembly of Experts, the body that will select the supreme leader and of which Raisi was a part since 2006, was similarly choreographed. Rouhani was among those prevented from running, allowing a new generation of ideological hardliners to come to the fore.

Khamenei, it seemed, was getting his house in order.

The jury was still out on whether Raisi, whose presidency was deeply unpopular among many Iranians and marred by economic malaise as inflation soared and the rial depreciated, would actually have succeeded Khamenei. The supreme leader’s son, Mojtaba, is the other standout candidate. But as president, he was unwaveringly loyal to his boss and helped to present a united front among conservatives, avoiding the internal clashes that blighted previous presidencies.

Raisi had been expected to run for a second term in elections next year. Under the constitution, a vote now has to be held within 50 days. That means Khamenei and other key power centers have to urgently begin preparing for the next election, posing a fresh challenge for a system at a delicate period in its history.

Raisi’s death will not have any marked impact on key domestic and foreign policy decisions, which are ultimately determined by Khamenei. But the republic will be loath to show any signs of weakness or political instability after waves of anti-regime protests and during a period of heightened tensions with the west and Israel, fueled by the seven-month Israel-Hamas war.

Many Iranians can be expected to vent their anger by simply not voting. In 2021, turnout fell below 50 per cent for the first time in a presidential poll since the 1979 Islamic revolution. This year’s parliamentary vote produced another record-low turnout, under 41 per cent.

Both were embarrassing for the republic, which has sought to project popular legitimacy through voter participation since its founding. But the process also indicated that Khamenei and other hardliners were willing to sacrifice the veneer of democratic credibility to secure the successor they wanted and ensure that hardliners remained fully in control.

That trend can be expected to continue, with little hope for the millions of disillusioned Iranians that any quarter will be given to reformists or that the regime will ease up on its hardline policies.

It is likely to be a similar story on the foreign policy front, where Khamenei has balanced belligerence towards the west and Israel with a calibrated, if risky, response to the regional hostilities triggered by the Israel-Hamas war, with the intention of maintaining conflict far from the republic’s shores.

Tehran has openly supported the militant groups it back in the so-called Axis of Resistance — including Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Iraqi and Syrian militias, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas — as they have mounted attacks against Israeli and US forces in the region. But it has repeatedly insisted that they are acting independently and that Tehran does not want a full-blown regional war or direct conflict with the US.

Khamenei gambled by authorizing the first direct missile and drone strike on Israel from Iranian soil in April in retaliation for an Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus that killed senior members of the Revolutionary Guards. Israel responded by launching a missile and drone strike on an air base near the Iranian city of Isfahan. But the calibrated tit-for-tat exchanges caused limited damage, and the foes indicated that they did not want to escalate.

Ultimately, Khamenei’s prime objective, be it through domestic or foreign policy, is to ensure the republic’s survival. He has lost a trusted lieutenant in Raisi, but the president’s death is unlikely to divert Khamenei or the regime off course, with the supreme leader bent on safeguarding his legacy and the power of loyalist hardliners.

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