AMU Intelligence Middle East Original

The Death of Iran’s President and What It Will Mean for Iran

On May 19, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in the northern reaches of the country, according to BBC News. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any foul play involved in the accident. The Iranian government and news media haven’t suggested as much either, beyond the typical fiery rhetoric blaming the West in general.

Along with Raisi, three government officials also died in the crash:

  • Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Foreign Minister
  • General Mehdi Mousavi, the head of presidential security
  • Malek Rahmati, the governor of Iran’s Eastern Azerbaijan province

Iran still has a functioning government and a constitution that includes contingencies for political vacancies. Consequently, Iran will continue to function as it has since the 1979 revolution in the near term, though not without a bit of palace intrigue.

The true head of government, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains the ultimate authority. He has invoked the constitutional requirements to replace the late President.

Finding an Experienced Replacement for Iran’s President Raisi Will Have Its Challenges

Raisi’s death has come at a precarious time. Iran has been vying for regional influence since its 1979 revolution, and it has found varying levels of success in the past two decades.

With other Arab nations pushing back on this influence – to say nothing of Israel – Iran finds itself with a shrinking pool of individuals who have the capability to eventually serve as replacements for numerous roles in the Iranian government, including that of the Supreme Leader. At the same time, any replacements must be able to sustain Iran’s gains in influence.

Once Khamenei invoked the constitutional requirement to temporarily fill the presidential vacancy, the interim president has 50 days to organize a new round of elections to find a permanent replacement for the office.

Many governments around the world have similar constitutional structures for snap elections. But in Iran, the Supreme Leader vets the potential candidates for office to weed out those individuals who do not possess the proper ideology.

During the last round of elections, Khamenei sidelined several prominent conservatives to make way for a Raisi victory. Once someone is sidelined by the Supreme Leader, resurrecting a political career is an often-monumental task. That fact suggests that those people sidelined during the last election have little chance of making the cut this time around.

While Khamenei’s vetting does maintain ideological continuity, it also limits the number of people with some form of government experience who can hold higher office.

What’s worse is that there are not a lot of new faces that turn up to run for office. Many of those people seeking office are at the age where they only have a few years ahead of them.

In Raisi’s case, it was speculated that Khamenei cleared the way for a presidential victory because Raisi was on the short list to take over as Supreme Leader. With Raisi’s death, the question of succession regarding the Supreme Leader – Khamenei is 85 – becomes an urgent one for the political elite.

The Influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Every form of government has factions vying for power and influence. While Iran is no different in that regard, it has seen one faction in particular – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – rise to prominence over the past two decades.

The IRGC is a military order, but it has become a major player in the political sphere according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Starting in 2009, the IRGC built an expansive business empire. With the influence of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the IRGC gained a prominent seat at the political table by its members holding three-fourths of the positions available in the presidential cabinet.

These gains by the IRGC have not diminished over the ensuing years, and it may be that the IRGC will be the next king maker once Khamenei leaves office. That doesn’t mean that the political views of the IRGC are cohesive, but the different policy views in the IRGC are easily reconcilable compared to the clerical establishment.

The Dissatisfaction of the Iranian Population Poses the Biggest Threat to Iran’s Government

The character of Iran has been defined by a government structure designed to prevent any one faction from challenging or exercising undue influence over every aspect of the government and the office of the Supreme Leader. Although that influence has somewhat shifted in favor of the IRGC, that by no means implies that this newfound power is unchallenged.

There is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among a significant percentage of the Iranian population. While a cohesive opposition movement has yet to coalesce, this dissatisfaction is a threat to the Iranian government.

The death of Iran’s president does not necessarily increase the risks to the ruling regime. Instead, his death has served to expose them.

William Tucker serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning.

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