Continuity Amidst Crisis: Iran’s Path Forward 

President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Al-Hashem (the Iranian Supreme Leader’s representative to East Azerbaijan), and Malik Rahmati (the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province) were confirmed to have died in a helicopter crash following an extensive overnight search on May 19.

Amid widespread speculation about the causes and potential consequences of this event, both domestically and internationally, it is important to consider several key points to understand what we might expect in the coming weeks.

Ebrahim Raisi: A Controversial Legacy

Seyyed Ebrahim Raisolsadati, known as Raisi, was born in 1960. He began his career following the Islamic Revolution as a legal prosecutor and spent several years at the General Inspection Office of the Islamic Republic (Sazman-e Bazrasi-e Koll-e Keshvar), as well as serving as the First Vice Chief of Justice of Iran. Since 2007, Raisi has been a member of the Assembly of Experts, the body empowered to designate and dismiss the Supreme Leader, and he was re-elected to this position in the last election.

Raisi gained broader public recognition on April 9, 2017, when he announced his first presidential candidacy. However, he was already well-known to many, particularly in Mashhad, where he served as the chairman of the Astan-e Qods-e Razavi Foundation from 2016 to 2019, a position to which he was appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His influence in Mashhad was further solidified through his family ties to Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Supreme Leader’s representative and Friday Prayer leader of Mashhad, to whom Raisi was connected through marriage to Alamolhoda’s daughter. This relationship, along with Khamenei’s own roots in Mashhad, facilitated Raisi’s rise within the influential political circle that emerged from the city following the Islamic Revolution.

Despite his prominence, Raisi never achieved widespread popularity comparable to other Iranian presidents. His name was often associated with the notorious ‘death commission,’ responsible for the execution of thousands of political dissidents in Tehran during the 1980s. Additionally, many criticized his poor performance in various domains during his presidency and his role in the crackdown on protesters during the 2022 demonstrations under the banner of “Woman, Life, Freedom.”

Although Raisi is no longer part of Iran’s political landscape, his ideas and agenda will likely be perpetuated by other politicians who supported him. His legacy, therefore, continues to influence the political discourse in Iran.

What to Expect

First, under Article 131 of Iran’s Constitution, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber will temporarily assume Raisi’s duties as the head of the executive branch until a presidential election is held within 50 days. Meanwhile, the Iranian cabinet has appointed Ali Bagheri as the acting foreign minister. During this interim period, the authorities will likely emphasize unity and support within Iranian society to demonstrate national solidarity, which is crucial to the state’s ideology, especially during times of crisis. In this context, nationalism intertwined with Shia ideology will be particularly prominent, as is often the case during crises. Regardless of their political interests, Iranians typically rally around a nationalist agenda, hence the emphasis in both state and social media that this event “is not about politicians but about Iran as a country.”

This event could intensify existing and growing power struggles within the elite circles. It is important to note that factions within Iran’s conservative stream have been fiercely competing for the role of Speaker of Parliament. Now, there is an opportunity to secure both the presidency and the head of parliament, two crucial branches of executive power in Iran. In terms of power dynamics, many observers had speculated about Raisi’s potential to become the next Supreme Leader. With his death, discussions have arisen about a possible clear path for other potential candidates, particularly Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the current Supreme Leader. While these expectations and speculations may persist in the coming months and years, one must always consider the unpredictable and often uncalculated nature of domestic affairs in Iran.

At the moment, with Mohammad Mokhber as acting president and Ali Bagheri as acting foreign minister, significant changes for the country are unlikely. Mokhber, with his ties to the IRGC and his status as a trusted confidant of the Supreme Leader, will handle the day-to-day operations. As is well known, major strategic decisions are generally determined by the Supreme Leader and the core factions of the establishment. This is also true for foreign and regional policies, which are largely influenced by the IRGC.

While the state emphasizes continuity and seeks to avoid uncertainty, certain challenges are unavoidable. Ebrahim Raisi assumed office amid historically low public participation, and recent parliamentary elections in Tehran saw only 8% of eligible voters participate. Thus, the primary challenge is how to mobilize voters in a polarized society like Iran, which is rife with economic and social dissatisfaction, within a short period of less than two months. Will the establishment adopt more inclusive measures, such as allowing reformist or moderate politicians like Hasan Rouhani to run for president, or will it use this situation to implement more exclusionary policies and tighten the core circle of power?

Regardless of the main strategy, one expectation is a move between a “state of exception” and a state of normality and consistency. While Raisi’s era was marked by extreme polarization, the authorities hope that under the current circumstances, there will be an opportunity to unify the people and politicians, mobilizing them for the months ahead. This is why, in his first statement, Ali Khamenei urged the nation “not to worry,” indicating that everything will continue as usual with no disruption in the country’s affairs. However, it is hard to deny that the country will face turbulent times, with unclear dynamics in both Iran’s parliament and the Assembly of Experts, combined with unresolved social issues in a polarized society. On the other hand, with the election of a new president, it appears that, for the first time, the presidency and parliament will begin their terms simultaneously, potentially creating a new coordinated dynamic within the state’s political machinery.

Indeed, Iranian politics, like global politics, operates in an unpredictable and complex landscape. We should focus on how the establishment navigates these unforeseen events and how Iranian communities respond and adapt to these challenges. Understanding these dynamics will be crucial in predicting the country’s future trajectory amidst its evolving political climate.

Photo Credit: Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons