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Raisi’s Death Leads to Dual Succession Crises in Iran

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The untimely death of the Islamic Republic’s president and its foreign minister in a mysterious helicopter crash on May 19 has come at the worst time for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but the best time for Iranian dissidents inside and outside the country.

The incident will have significant implications for Iranian domestic politics, although it is expected to have a much smaller impact on the foreign policy of the theocratic regime.

Whether the fatal crash in a remote, fog-covered mountainous region in East Azerbaijan was the work of the divine, or caused by a technical malfunction or even an act of sabotage involving foreign or domestic elements, one thing is clear:

The Islamic Republic has suffered yet another political setback. But, more than anything, it has suffered a consequential moral defeat as, contrary to the regime’s propaganda, the majority of Iranians were in a festive mood over the death of the “Butcher of Tehran” and foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

Meanwhile, speculations about the real cause of the incident and its near and long-term implications on Iran’s foreign and domestic politics are likely to continue.

Men stand as they offer condolences over the deaths of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and others, at the representative office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Mosul, Iraq May 21, 2024.

As for the cause of the crash: three main scenarios are moot

Technical failure

In this scenario, given the significant toll that US-led sanctions have taken on Iran’s aviation industry, the aging Bell 212 helicopter carrying the 63-year-old Raisi might have encountered a serious mid-air malfunction, which was further complicated by poor weather conditions.

If you believe in karma or divine retribution, you might see the invisible hand of God at work here, suggesting that Raisi finally faced his comeuppance for his role in sending hundreds of Iranian political prisoners to the gallows as a member of the “death committee” in the 1980s.

Among Iranians both inside the country and in the diaspora abroad, conspiracy theories about the causes and consequences of the helicopter crash are flourishing. It is important to acknowledge that the helicopter crash could be attributed to various factors, such as bad weather or mechanical issues, just as easily as to external actors like Israel.

The realm of possibilities is vast, and only time will reveal which explanation is closest to the reality of what happened.

Act of sabotage by a foreign, and/or domestic element

In this scenario, the possibility of foul play and possible third-party involvement — be it Israel or one of its allies or a domestic actor — cannot be ruled out with certainty.

Israel’s Mossad has a track record of successful kinetic and non-kinetic campaigns inside Iran, including espionage, targeted assassinations, sabotage, drone strikes, and cyberattacks. The likelihood of Israel’s involvement in assassinating Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian, however, is low for several reasons. Historically, the Mossad rarely targets political leaders of the country, instead focusing on military leaders of the IRGC or Iranian assets related to its drone, missile, and nuclear programs. There is little strategic benefit for Israel in targeting someone like Raisi, making it difficult to find a cogent explanation for such an action.

One can allude to a deliberate act of sabotage or a possible assassination plan by a domestic element, including a technician tampering the GPS system or turning off transponder prior to the flight, or a terrorist group as possible causes of the crash.

Mention must be made however that these are only hypothetical explanations over possible cause of the crash not final or definite conclusions.

Inside job

In this scenario, an act of sabotage might have been carried out by rival elements within the power structure. These could include factions associated with Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, a serious contender for the leadership; elements close to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the hardline speaker of parliament with ties to the IRGC; or those linked to Housing and Transportation Minister Mehrdad Bazrpash, who was in one of the helicopters that returned safely. The point here is that Raisi was a potential successor to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, and a formidable rival to Mojtaba for the position.

Impact of the Crash on Iranian Politics

Without a doubt, the sudden death of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian creates a temporary yet volatile power vacuum within the political structure. Yet, this vacuum is unlikely to significantly hamper the daily functioning of the state, either domestically or in foreign policy, because in Iran, it is the Supreme Leader who holds ultimate authority, not the president or any other government official.

Khamenei sits atop a highly nepotistic and corrupt political power structure that is more likely to frail or fall with the demise of the 85-year-old Supreme Leader himself, rather than the absence of Raisi or other officials.

However, to say that Raisi’s death has no meaningful impact on Iranian politics would be an overstatement.

The incident has two immediate and long-term impacts:

Concerning the near-term impact, the country unexpectedly finds itself faced with having no choice but to hold elections to appoint a successor and even form a new government. For the time being Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, will take over as interim president with Khamenei’s approval, as per Article 131 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution until elections are held in less than two months.

It is very unlikely that foreign and domestic policies undergo any ground-breaking changes in this period. Nor is it likely that people would seize on the opportunity and stage massive public protests in the country. It is unlikely, but not entirely impossible.

The state’s sudden focus on hastily planning for an early election detracts from Tehran’s bandwidth to address other pressing issues, particularly in foreign policy, such as its confrontation with Israel. This situation might inadvertently empower the Jewish state to escalate pressure on Iran regarding its nuclear program and regional interventions.

Regarding its long-term impact, it’s crucial to recognize that the incident primarily inflicts a significant psychological and moral blow on the regime. The country is currently engulfed in deep-seated public anger and frustration towards the regime, stemming from its extensive suppression of women and its failure to address the socio-political and economic stagnation gripping the nation.

The populace harbors immense dissatisfaction with the regime, yet appears incapable of overthrowing it through street protests. Despite its apparent resilience against public demonstrations, the Islamic Republic is perceived as vulnerable and fragile in the face of average Iranian reactions to the deaths of its leaders and officials.

Raisi’s death sparked celebrations in Tehran with fireworks and social media was rife with jokes and humorous content over his demise. Lack of legitimacy is one of the symptoms of state decline, a major contributor to state fragility because it undermines an authoritarian state authority, and further aggravates the hitherto bellicose nature of relations between the state and society.

Another important long-term impact of the fateful helicopter crash is related to the succession crisis in the post-Khamenei era. With Raisi out of the picture, it appears that the road to power has been paved for Mojtaba to succeed his father once he is gone.

Nevertheless, Mojtaba’s power grab is no easy feat. Raisi’s death has a double-edged sword effect. On one hand, it can, at least on paper, give him an easier path to take up the mantle of Supreme Leader. On the other hand, Raisi’s absence can exacerbate the ongoing power struggle within the establishment among various rivaling actors who jockey for higher positions or even among the elements within the security and intelligence apparatus.

This dangerous power struggle is likely to evince itself in the medium to long term.

The assertion here is that such bitter infighting is dangerous for Khamenei and his kleptocratic structure of power he has managed to erect and consolidate in Iran. If this happens, this has the potential to impede an orderly power transition in Iran in the post-Khamenei era, resembling the chaos that followed Lenin’s and Stalin’s deaths in the Soviet Union.

In sum, the death of Raisi has presented the Islamic Republic with its most formidable and dangerous challenge since its inception 45 years ago.

While Khamenei was mulling over plans to create, in the best-case scenario, an orderly power transition after his death, the regime is now faced with twin succession crises.

The outcome of the initial crisis will determine the parameters of the subsequent one, and between these two crises lie numerous elements of surprise and a chain of unpredictable events that could unfold in an ever-turbulent Iran.