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What next for Iran?

Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Although Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi’s death leaves the country to face an uncertain future, it would not have any significant short-term impact on Iran’s political stability.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian were found dead on 20 May, a day after their helicopter crashed in the mountains of northwestern Iran, leaving the country facing an uncertain future. Raisi’s sudden death, who was elected as President in June 2021, comes at a critical time for a country that plays a crucial role in the shifting geopolitics of the wider Middle East (West Asia), with questions arising about who will succeed him and what direction the country will take in its foreign policy.

During the Raisi tenure, relations have continued to deteriorate with the United States (US) as the two countries faced off on various fronts, particularly in the ongoing conflicts in the Ukraine, Gaza, and Iran’s nuclear programme. The US, as well, goes into elections in November.

 

"Under Article 131 of Iran’s Constitution, the First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber temporarily took office with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s approval."

 

Despite how it might appear, President Raisi's death would not have any significant short-term impact on Iran's political stability. Constitutional procedures and strong security mechanisms guarantee a smooth transition to the next president. Under Article 131 of Iran’s Constitution, the First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber temporarily took office with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s approval. According to the initial announcement of the country’s Guardian Council, the presidential election will be held on 28 June 2024.

The upcoming election in Iran may potentially create an opportunity for more traditional conservative candidates to make a bid for the presidency. Raisi was seen as a conservative president with close ties to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. With his passing, there may be a shift in the political landscape, allowing other conservative figures to step forward and compete for the presidency. Now the question of who will succeed Raisi has been making the rounds in Iran’s public spheres. There are some possible candidates—Interim President Mohammad Mokhber; Ali Shamkhani, former head of the National Security Council; Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Speaker of the Parliament; and Ali Larijani, former Speaker of the Parliament of Iran, who is mostly affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The establishment is currently dominated by the conservative axis, particularly those aligned with the Supreme Leader and the powerful IRGC. With reformists out of the picture, potential power struggles are expected to be primarily within the conservative camp. In a conservative-only race, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf could be a strong contender to replace Raisi as he holds a solid base of support within the conservative establishment.

 

"With his passing, there may be a shift in the political landscape, allowing other conservative figures to step forward and compete for the presidency."

 

Despite the long-standing rhetoric, largely in the Western media, that the Islamic Republic is in a struggle for its long-term survival, it has indeed proven to be a durable system of governance, with its theocratic structure remaining intact for over four decades. While there may be power struggles within the top ranks during the transition to the next leadership, the basic governing institutions in Iran appear to be stable and show no signs of fracturing. Ayatollah Khamenei's leadership has provided continuity and stability to the regime, and the system will likely maintain itself under his guidance. Despite external pressures and internal challenges, the Islamic Republic has demonstrated resilience and the ability to weather various storms throughout its history. For decades, in Western narratives, the Islamic Republic was to easily collapse and  be overthrown via a public movement. Despite all speculation, it is especially significant to note that President Raisi was not a major candidate as a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Domestic implications aside, Iran's foreign policy is likely to remain consistent. While there may be some tactical adjustments in response to changing circumstances, the fundamental principles guiding Iran's foreign policy are unlikely to change significantly in the near future. Strategic decisions are set by the Supreme Leader and the National Security Council, not the president’s office. The Islamic Republic will continue to fully support Resistance groups, more specifically Hamas and Hezbollah, that are fighting against Israel. This means that the country's regional policies, supporting allied groups in the region, and nuclear programme strategies may not undergo significant shifts even with a new president in place.

 

"The Islamic Republic will continue to fully support Resistance groups, more specifically Hamas and Hezbollah, that are fighting against Israel."

 

As the US presidential election approaches, Israel may intensify the ongoing hostilities between the two countries, potentially leading to a more overt confrontation. This situation underscores the complex and volatile dynamics in the wider Middle East, where geopolitical rivalries and security concerns often manifest in covert actions and retaliatory measures. While the Netanyahu administration still hopes to drag the US into war with Iran, it seems that the US is not seeking direct conflict with Tehran. Following the confirmation of President Raisi's death, despite the historically strained relationship between the US and Iran, the US government extended official condolences to Iran upon the passing of its president. Although the President and foreign minister are not the main decision-makers in Iran’s foreign policy, an empty position at this level could have an adverse impact on Tehran’s regional diplomatic activities surrounding Gaza and it could lose the golden opportunity to engage with the Biden administration before the US election. Unfavourably, this can strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hand in influencing US policy in the Middle East.

Vali Golmohammadi (Ph.D-Ass.Prof.)
24 May 2024

 

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