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Death of Iran’s President Complicates Leadership Succession Plans • Stimson Center

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi died on Sunday in a helicopter accident in a remote area of northwestern Iran.

Along with him were Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the representative of the Supreme Leader in Tabriz, and the governor-general of Eastern Azerbaijan province, where the crash took place.

Raisi is the second Iranian president to die in office since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The first was Mohammad Ali Rajaei, who was assassinated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq Organization, a militant group that broke away from the revolution, in 1981. Yet, the two deaths take place in very different contexts.

Under the Iranian system, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on all important matters in Iran. Khamenei is 85 and Raisi, 63, who had been carefully groomed to higher office, appeared to be one of the main contenders to replace him. Raisi’s death opens the door to other potential candidates at a time when Iran is facing severe challenges including economic problems, domestic alienation, and rising tensions with its regional arch-foe, Israel.

For many years, Mojtaba Khamenei, the second son of Khamenei and his close aide, has been considered a leading candidate to succeed him. Another possibility is Alireza Arafi, a prominent member of the Assembly of Experts which nominally chooses the leader.

Raisi’s father-in-law, Ahmad Alam-ol-Hoda, also comes to mind. Alam-ol-Hoda is a powerful figure in the eastern city of Mashhad and is the Supreme Leader’s representative in Khorasan Razavi province. Raisi’s widow and Alam-ol-Hoda’s daughter, Jamileh Alam-ol-Hoda, is said to have wished to be Iran’s First Lady, and that would have been achieved only if her husband became the leader. She has been advocating for the title since October 2023, when she brought the term of “First Lady” to the political rhetoric of the Islamic Republic. Perhaps she would settle for “First Daughter.”

Another powerful figure is Ahmad Khatami, a member of the presidium of the Assembly of Experts. Like Raisi, Khatami is a hardliner who has been placed on the European Union’s sanctions list for “inciting violence against protesters,” including “demanding the death penalty,” for those who took part in the protest movement following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini in 2022. Khatami is also a member of the Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates for president and other elected office. Under Iran’s Constitution, new elections for president must be held within 50 days.

Raisi’s death scrambles the choreography for the seating of a new Assembly of Experts, chosen in recent elections. The new Assembly was supposed to convene this week and choose the new leader of its presidium, its governing body. Raisi, who had been the deputy head of the presidium, was the frontrunner for the top job, which theoretically would have given him the power to approve or reject the Assembly’s choice for Khamenei’s successor. Now, there will have to be an election to choose a replacement for Raisi in South Khorasan province.

Iran will also have to select a new president at a time when voter turnout in recent elections has been at historic lows.

Vice President Mohammad Mokhber Dezfouli will be temporarily taking charge of the Executive branch, under Article 131 of Iran’s Constitution.

A council consisting of the Speaker of the Parliament, the Judiciary Chief, and the First Vice President is obliged to arrange a new presidential election within a maximum period of 50 days.

It is likely that Mokhber, who has run important financial conglomerations in Iran, will run for the presidency along with a perennial candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the current speaker of parliament.

Qalibaf, a former mayor of Tehran and head of the Air Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ran unsuccessfully for the presidency three times beginning in 2005, when he lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Qalibaf is considered a relative moderate but his chances of winning this time are unclear. He is also likely to be replaced as speaker of the parliament.

Over the course of Khamenei’s leadership, Iran’s permitted political spectrum has become more and more narrow. The upcoming presidential elections are likely to be uncompetitive and the public’s morale is at an all-time low. The system may try to introduce some reformist figures to make the election more attractive to Iranians who have lost their faith in the establishment. One possibility is Es’haq Jahangiri, vice president under Hassan Rouhani, who preceded Raisi.

Jahangiri has sought to distance himself from Rouhani, saying that he was stripped of his power during Rouhani’s second term (2017-2021). This could boost Jahangiri’s chance to survive vetting by the Guardian Council. However, Jahangari lacks a strong fan base among ordinary Iranians.

Given the short time available before elections, the council has little time to vet candidates. Therefore, we are likely to see familiar names, who have gone through the vetting process before.

Will Raisi’s death and a new president change the situation dramatically for the Iranian people? The short answer is no. The prevailing hardline doctrine in both domestic and foreign policies is likely to be continued.

Saeed Azimi is a political journalist based in Tehran. Find him on X (formerly known as Twitter) at @saeedazimi1772. 

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