Iran in the Wake of the Death of Ebrahim Raisi
Kingshuk Chatterjee

The death of Ebrahim Raisi, the incumbent President of Iran, in a tragic accident has lent to feverish speculation as to what could its repercussions be. The general consensus that is emerging seems to be that having made little original contribution to governance during his years in office, Raisi’s absence from the political arena of the Islamic Republic is unlikely to have any major impact in the short run – both in domestic issues as well as foreign. While it is true that Raisi did not leave much impact during his period in office, it is not because the office of the President carries little weight in the Islamic Republic – as is widely being argued. By his death, Raisi has opened the path for things to change – both for good and bad – at a time when both Iran and the larger neighbourhood are going through an exceptionally unpredictable phase.

This essay tries to gauge the repercussions that may be occasioned by the sudden vacuum in the body-politic of the Islamic Republic. It begins by looking at the short run, which, in accord with much of the analyses elsewhere on this issue, argues that there is no immediate change of course in the offing till the next President is elected. It goes on to argue that in the medium run, though, the path has opened for possibilities that had not appeared very strong till now. The essay then goes on to look at the possible repercussions in the long term with respect to the larger landscape of Iranian politics

The Immediate Impact

Speculation is rife in the global media about what may come out of the death of Ebrahim Raisi, the recently deceased President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A large number of observers appear to be of the opinion that the untimely death is extremely unlikely to have impact in the daily life of the country. The argument goes that since the Rahbar (Supreme Leader), ‘Ali Khamenei is the most important, and the most powerful, functionary of the country, the death of Raisi is going to neither result in any change, nor pave the way for any.

While the assumption that little would change is probably correct, that little could change is certainly not. Contrary to the widely held understanding, the office of the President is not devoid of any constitutional authority. In fact, being actually the only directly elected state functionary in the body-politic who is the head of the government, the presidents of the Islamic Republic have played historically quite a substantial role in the political life of the country – as evident from the tenures of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Sayyid Muhammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (during his first term), and Hassan Rouhani. While the power of the president is heavily circumscribed by the larger institutional complex of authority – partly unelected (the Supreme Leader, the Guardians Council, the Expediency Council) and partly elected (the Assembly of Experts, the Majlis, apart from the Presidency) – constitutionally, the President of Iran is actually the nerve-centre of the administration, responsible for both formulation of policy as well as its implementation. With a President elected by a convincingly clear mandate (such as those presidents mentioned above), the office is capable of being the real engine for the Republic. Although, experience shows that when a president actually lives up to the full potential of his office, the rest of the polycratic institutional complex of the Islamic Republic invariably makes it difficult for the president to function (as happened to all the presidents named above).

It is being correctly assumed that Raisi’s death would not have much impact on the political life in Iran, because Raisi’s elevation to the presidency was probably the most unconvincing electoral contest (even more than Ahmedinejad’s re-election of 2009) in the history of the Islamic Republic. The 2021 election took place after all the reformist or moderate candidates were rejected by the Guardians Council, and the lowest ever electoral turn-out was reported from the capital city of Tehran (only about 8% of the total electorate in the city bothered to cast their vote), which accounts for nearly one voter in every five in the whole country. The ‘revolutionary’ component of the establishment (Supreme Leader, IRGC, the hardliners in the body-politic) mobilized the vote for Raisi, and reformist Iranian media was clear that the President is meant to work in a lock-step with the rest of the hardline establishment that ‘elevated him to power.’ Year 2021 marked the first time ever when the reformist component of Iranian politics was totally excluded from all the six organs of the institutional complex mentioned above. Raisi was the candidate selected by the establishment to perform as the ‘elected’ representative of the people. The policies that he pursued as President were those that were handed down to him by the Supreme Leader, in the manner that he was required by the establishment. He may have been in complete accord with such policies, but nevertheless they do not seem to have been his own. These were thus the years that Iranian foreign policy decisions (especially with respect to the neighbourhood) began to be completely decided upon by the IRGC, without any inputs from the presidency unlike what used to be the case under Khatami, Rouhani and occasionally even Ahmedinejad, when IRGC had to jostle for its own ‘space’.

The lock-step President’s authority was badly dented by the hijab protests and the turmoil that followed 2022-23. While brutal subjugation of the public disturbances, with scores of death sentences being liberally handed about, accords with the reputation of Raisi (dating back to his days as a prosecutor in the 1980s), the general public opinion assigned the blame more to Khamene‘i, rather than Raisi who was considered to merely be His Master’s Voice. In other words, Raisi was not seen to have a persona distinct from the establishment he served. In the realm of foreign policy, the Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian (who also died in the helicopter crash along-with Raisi) was known to be pursuing foreign policy according to the lines laid down by IRGC (with which Raisi was believed to be in agreement). Even when it came to Tehran’s positions on Gaza conflict, the more important pronouncements tended to be made by the Supreme Leader and the IRGC commanders – neither did the President say much, nor did the Foreign Minister care to comment much on the matter.

Hence, pending elections within the constitutionally mandated period of 50 days, Raisi’s first Vice-President, Mohammad Mokhber, was swiftly raised to the position of (effectively) the care-taker President. The latter now has to arrange the next presidential elections along with a council comprising the Head of the Majlis and the Chief Judiciary. During this interim period, there is to be no change of the current course of the government, or its policies – not even any interpellation of the members of government by members of Majlis is to be allowed.

Thus, short of any major crisis that might unfold (either domestically or internationally), policies of the last administration are constitutionally required in the main to be continued. Any change of line is permissible only if the Supreme Leader would care to allow for the government to bring about any change of course whatsoever – which can be pretty much ruled out (the previous policy having originated from him as well), short of any development (such as the actual outbreak of a war, say, with Israel) that may pose an emergency rethink in Tehran. Thus, from now till 28th June, when the Presidential election is scheduled to be held, Tehran is almost certain to pace itself carefully.

The Medium Term: Selecting a President, or Electing?

In the medium run, the problem of succession to Raisi could be an interesting square that requires to be circled.

Even by the standards of the Islamic Republic, Raisi was the first President whose election was widely considered a foregone conclusion even before a single vote had been cast. He was the archetypal regime insider, in order to ensure whose election, the various stakeholders in the Iranian.

establishment, or the deep state, coordinated their activities. Raisi was closely associated with Khamanei right from the 1980s, in his capacity as the chief prosecutor of the city of Tehran. In recognition of his services to the revolution, he was promoted rapidly through the ranks of the judiciary – the bastion of religious, political and social conservatism in the Islamic Republic. He was also associated with at least two of the richest Bonyad-ha (economic foundations that are given preferential treatment by the regime, allowing a kind of stranglehold over Iranian economy), which helped him to develop a considerable network of support among the IRGC. Besides, Raisi enjoyed virtually unlimited access to the Bayt-e Rahbar (Household of the Supreme Leader) courtesy his personal allegiance to Khamenei.

Once elected, Raisi helped further the purpose of coordination among the stake-holders of the deep state, appointing people with ‘ulema’ or IRGC background disproportionately in the offices of the Islamic Republic. In a display of the kind of coordination Raisi’s election signified, only 1 of the 19 ministers initially proposed by President Raisi was denied approval by the Majlis – the least number of rejections by the friendliest Majlis any President has had since 1989. In power, Raisi carefully calibrated his activities in such a way that the IRGC-dominated economic foundations and corporations seem to have emerged as the single greatest group of beneficiaries of his presidential tenure – so much so that the rumour mills were abuzz with the possibility that Raisi was virtually ensuring the support of the IRGC in the event he threw his hat in the ring for the succession to Khamenei in the future. He is credited to have allowed the deep state with free hand to such an extent, that even after the brutal crackdown of the hijab protests, Raisi was not considered significant enough to be held culpable.

It is difficult to figure out which candidate in the body-politic of the Islamic Republic would be able to satisfy the deep state of the Islamic Republic as much as Raisi had been. By definition, if any such candidate was to exist, he would be so non-descript that nobody would even be able to guess at his identity this early in the seven weeks before the Presidential elections – not unlike what Raisi himself had been. Although the caretaker-President Mohammad Mokhber, IRGC and close to the Supreme Leader, would check some of the boxes, it is indeed too early to reckon his chances with any degree of certainty. However, since 1979, no Vice-President of the Islamic Republic has ever run successfully for the Presidency, principally on account of the baggage of incumbency.

The most important point with respect to the Presidential election is that the regime must now decide whether it would want to ‘select’ the next President as it did Raisi, and rob the 28th June election of all meaning, or whether it would allow the people a genuine choice once again. The social coalition of hard-liners (represented by but not limited to the close combination between the ‘ulema’ and the IRGC) have demonstrably captured all the elected and the unelected organs of power in the Islamic Republic. The chances of this social coalition of hard-liners actually relinquishing the degree of control they have come to obtain are not very high.

However, the pragmatists of the regime are well aware of the extent of popular disenchantment with ‘the regime capture’ by the ulema-IRGC nexus. This was arguably what gave the impetus to the hijab protests of 2022-23, which brought out the depth of the public disenchantment with the regime in a combative mode. The dispensation appears to be so deficient in public acceptability today that regime security cannot be taken for granted. It is arguably for this reason that Tehran seemed absolutely determined to steer away from a direct confrontation with Israel over the Gaza conflict – lest outbreak of an international war destabilizes the regime domestically.

Given the possibility that this precarious international situation is likely to continue in the short to medium run, it is not altogether impossible that the pragmatists of the regime would seize the opportunity presented by Raisi’s departure, and persuade the Supreme Leader to mandate a course correction by allowing a relatively free election to take place, offering the people an actual choice. Such an act could potentially help the presidential election regain the kind of acceptability and legitimacy it used to enjoy previously.

In the past, Khamenei has shown himself to be capable of considerable pragmatism – such as endorsing nuclear negotiations during the Ahmedinejad and Rouhani presidencies (after scuttling it under Khatami) – when regime security appeared to be threatened in the long run. Of course, one essential consideration is that the prospective President must not appear to threaten the position of Khamenei himself. In the present scenario, considerations of regime security have got entangled with precisely such personal considerations of Khamenei – that of succession to the office of the Rahbar himself. To this we now turn.

The Long Term: Succession to Khamenei

For quite some time, the central question dogging the Islamic Republic has been, ‘After Khamenei, who?’ The Supreme Leader is 85 years of age, and has been in failing health for years. He is the last of the disciples of Ayatollah Khomeini, widely seen as the figurehead of the 1979 revolution, and the last of the key figures who constituted the core of the Islamic order that came into being. Khamenei came to the office of the Supreme Leader in August 1989, and has been holding it since, far longer than the original holder – Khomeini, for whom the office was designed in the first place. In the nearly 35 years since then, Khamenei has changed the office in important ways.

Unlike the original intention (as expressed in the Constitution of Iran, and as practiced by Ayatollah Khomeini), the present incumbent stopped being the force that maintained the balance between the various organs of the government, and has exercised increasing influence over the functioning of the Islamic Republic. His personal aggrandizement of power and influence in the body-politic stems from his association with some of the wealthiest Bonyad-ha (economic foundations), which gives him tremendous powers of financial patronage. Further, he has been associated with the IRGC since its creation during the Iraq war, and has been crucial to its continued relevance, embedding and phenomenal growth within body-politic of the Islamic Republic. Such powers of patronage were further magnified by his use of the Supreme Leader’s constitutionally mandated power of appointment of (mostly ‘ulema) functionaries in state organs (like the Council of Guardians, the Expediency Council, and the judiciary) from among people close to him personally, or close to those in his entourage, or at the very least from among those who were ranged opposed to the various Presidents (Rafsanjani, Khatami, Rouhani and even Ahmedinejad) that Khamenei has had to work with. This was partly to ensure that no single individual/office becomes overwhelmingly powerful, and partly to retain his own relevance in the system. In the process, he has successfully transformed the office of the Supreme Leader (which is increasingly being referred to as Bayt-e Rahbar, or the Household of the Supreme Leader) into precisely the kind of office that it was designed to prevent from emerging.

The patronage network developed by Khamenei is the bedrock of what has come to be identified as the hardline components of the Islamic Republic. Constituting of a social coalition of disparate groups (sometimes even mutually competing forces – viz the IRGC and the Basij militia, clerical as much as lay persons) that were at various stages of the last three decades threatened by the reform agenda of the political centre in Iran (represented by Presidents Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani, inter alia), the hard-liners now have virtually captured the entire institutional landscape of the Islamic Republic described in the previous sections.

The problem is, Khamenei was pivotal to this regime capture by virtue of his holding of the office of the Supreme Leader, but also on account of his personal network of patronage. In his absence, there is no guarantee that all the various components would be offering the next holder of that office of the Supreme Leader the same kind of allegiance. The hard-liners are not a monolithic group of social and economic interests – and very often they have little but for Khamenei in common between them. For instance, the ulema want a system which would enhance their power even further; the IRGC would prefer one beholden to them, and not the ulema.

For the social coalition of hard-liners to continue, it is imperative to select a successor to the Rahbar who is likely to be able to maintain the coalition. It has been an open secret that Khamenei had been priming his second son, Mojtaba Khamenei, as his successor in office. Mojtaba enjoys support from a section of the IRGC and even a small section of the ulema who have been gainfully working with him in connection with Mojtaba’s role as his father’s right-hand man. For those who did not work that much gainfully with Mojtaba, Raisi had begun to emerge as the perfect alternative which ticked all the boxes for the succession. Now in his absence, the race is wide open. A new name has already begun to be mooted for consideration – that of the tech-savvy Ali Reza Arafi – the Imam Jomeh of Qom, a member of the Guardian Council and since 2021 of the Council of Experts (the body which elects the next Supreme Leader). Arafi has the additional advantage of being a renowned jurist, and an Ayatollah with proper credentials (unlike Raisi or Mojtaba, both of whom were Hojatolislams who suddenly began to be addressed as Ayatollahs).

Khamenei looks set to stick around for some time yet, so the hard-liners still have time to look for a fresh candidate to unite behind, against Mojtaba. If the lobby supporting Mojtaba prevails, it might fracture the hardline social coalition, and trigger resistance from those sections of the body-politic who would not want the creation of a new dynasty (similar to the one Khamenei’s old associate Rafsanjani was building till his fall from positions of influence, and then his death) that may lead to an undesirable concentration of power.

Even before Raisi was beginning to emerge as a viable alternative to Mojtaba in the race for succession, discussions had been revived about the creation of a collective Leadership in absence of a properly qualified jurist – similar to discussions after the death of Khomeini. In 1989, such discussions were eventually set aside at the behest of Rafsanjani, and Khamenei was chosen largely because he was then a political lightweight, and also because Rafsanjani thought he would be able to handle his old associate. The crucial point of consideration is whether Iran is able to turn the clock back to 1989, and say that in absence of a qualified jurist as eminent as the first incumbent (Ayatollah Khomeini), the powers of the Rahbar would be shared between a number of offices of the Islamic Republic, and the office of the Supreme Leader would be allowed to lie vacant. That might help bring to an end the hardline domination of the Islamic Republic, and winds of change could blow in Iran.

The chances of this happening currently are slim, but remain a possibility in the long term that has now been opened up by the death of Raisi. It might all turn on whether the next President has the strength and the vision to bring such a thing to pass, for it is the office of the President that is likely to gain from such a reversal of the landscape.

Conclusion

Ebrahim Raisi may not have left an enviable legacy as the President of Iran, but his demise at the present conjuncture in the domestic politics of Iran may turn out to be quite significant. If the pragmatists prevail and allow for a bit of course correction at the time of the forthcoming Presidential election in the month of June, it might help stabilize a regime that is appearing somewhat wobbly. Such stabilization could in turn promote further pragmatism at the time of the selection of the successor to Khamenei, which in turn would determine whether the transfer of power to the post-revolutionary generation in the Islamic Republic happens smoothly or not. If the hardline establishment tries to ram through its own candidates during these two crucial milestones in the months and years ahead, the Islamic Republic would remain near the precipice. The regime might even plunge into the precipice in the event of any development that may serve to take its eye of the rumblings from the realm of domestic politics – a development like the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Because of the nature and extent of Iran’s involvement in the neighbourhood through proxy militias like the Hezbollah, HAMAS, the Kataib-e Hezbollah and the Houthis, any pre-emptive strike by Israel on any of Iran’s assets in the region can potentially drag Iran into a larger regional conflict. Were that to happen, all the three range of scenarios discussed above might conceivably be replaced by an altogether different set of considerations that would render the Islamic Republic very vulnerable, susceptible even to collapse.

These are interesting times for any observer located outside the ring.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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