Analysis'A real shock for the politics of the system'

Raisi’s death doesn’t change Iranian policy, but will spark fight for power

After fatal crash of Iran’s president and potential Khamenei successor, deep stable of figures aiming to fill the vacuum his loss creates may test supreme leader

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi (C) at the site of Qiz Qalasi, the third dam jointly built by Iran and Azerbaijan on the Aras River, ahead of its inauguration ceremony on May 19, 2024. (Iranian Presidency/AFP)
A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi (C) at the site of Qiz Qalasi, the third dam jointly built by Iran and Azerbaijan on the Aras River, ahead of its inauguration ceremony on May 19, 2024. (Iranian Presidency/AFP)

Iran confirmed Monday morning that President Ebrahim Raisi, as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, were dead following a helicopter crash the previous day.

Though the deaths of two senior Iranian officials are a dramatic development at a time when multiple conflicts are raging in the region, it likely will not affect the course of those fights significantly, with decisions over foreign policy and war under the purview of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“The president of the Islamic Republic is an implementer, not a decision-maker,” explained Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran. “So the policies of the Islamic Republic, the fundamentals of those policies, will remain the same.”

Raisi “works for the Supreme Leader,” noted Ori Goldberg of Reichman University. “Certainly this guy, because he was elected in the least democratic elections the Islamic Republic ever had.”

At the same time, however, the sudden loss of Iran’s president creates a power vacuum that senior figures will start maneuvering to take advantage of.

According to Article 131 of Iran’s constitution, in the case of the president’s death, the first deputy temporarily assumes the presidency. Mohammad Mokhber, a Khamenei loyalist, currently fills that role.

Elections must be held within fifty days.

In this April 9, 2018 photo, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark ‘National Nuclear Day,’ in Tehran, Iran. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

There is no shortage of powerful officials who have been waiting for an opportunity like this to move further up the regime’s power structure, and the sudden shock of the death of Iran’s president now presents itself as a test for Khamenei.

“He has to show that he can carry, not the country, but the leadership, through this transition,” said Goldberg.

Iranian women walk past a banner showing missiles being launched from Iranian map in northern Tehran, Iran, April 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Potential successor

But more importantly, Raisi had been seen as the leading candidate to replace Khamenei. He was immensely experienced — a cleric, ex-chief justice and former head of a massive foundation, in addition to being president.

“To have him off the field or incapacitated, dead, what have you, is a real shock for the politics of the system,” said Brodsky.

While overshadowed by Raisi, the loss of Amir-Abdollahian is also significant, as he has been an extremely effective foreign minister, overseeing a successful reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and navigating a series of difficult crises, including with powerful neighbor Pakistan.

Though Iran’s broad foreign policy won’t change, having to deal with unexpected political upheaval is expected to take attention away from the multi-front fight against Israel.

The country can now be “a little more self-engaged, wrapped up in internal politics, as it sorts out the election for the next president,” noted Michael Makovsky, CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Iranian emergency services arrive at the site where two explosions in quick succession struck a crowd marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of Guards general Qasem Soleimani, near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque in the southern Iranian city of Kerman on January 3, 2024. (MEHR NEWS / AFP)

The regime also risks looking weak after a series of setbacks.

Tehran has been displaying weakness for months. On January 3, Islamic State terrorists killed at least 84 people in two explosions near the grave of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, as they marked the fourth anniversary of his death in a US drone strike in Iraq four years earlier.

The previous month, Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni terrorist group, killed 11 Iranian police officers

Iran, desperate to show some muscle, launched missiles into Pakistan, saying it was targeting Jaish al-Adl. But nuclear-armed Pakistan wouldn’t back down, hitting back with missiles and fighter jets within Iran — the first bombing attack on Iranian soil since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Its bluff called, Iran agreed to deescalate.

Along Israel’s borders, Iran has seen its credibility come under the most pressure.

Emergency personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes that hit a building next to the Iranian embassy in Syria’s capital Damascus, April 1, 2024. (Louai Beshara/AFP)

While Israel struggles to locate and target Hamas leaders in Gaza, it has shown a striking ability and willingness to take out Iranian officials in Syria. In April, Israel allegedly assassinated the top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official in Syria, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, and his deputy, Mohammad Haj Rahimi. In December, senior IRGC officer Brig. Gen. Razi Mousavi was killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike in Damascus.

Iran had to show its regional proxies, and its own citizens, that it could extract a price from Israel, especially after Hamas had proven that Israel could be humiliated by its October 7 surprise attack. But Iran’s response — a massive missile and drone attack that marked its first-ever direct attack on the Jewish state — damaged nothing of value and succeeded in uniting the West and many Arab countries in Israel’s defense.

An Iranian man holds a placard bearing the images of Iran’s Supreme Leader supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (bottom-L), Iran’s late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (top-L), slain Iranian general Qasem Soleimani (C) and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi (R) at a polling station in Tehran, during elections to select members of parliament and a key clerical body, on March 1, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Losing two senior officials in a helicopter crash makes the regime look vulnerable and incompetent. But if Khamenei manages a smooth transition, the Islamic Republic will be showing a measure of stability at a difficult time.

And there remains the question of how Western leaders will respond to the death of a leader whose country is behind much of the terrorism and instability in the Middle East and beyond, not to mention its crucial military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. Moreover, Raisi oversaw the executions of thousands of political prisoners after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988.

What is certain is that Iran’s efforts to harm Israel and push the US out of the region will continue, even with the fog regarding Raisi’s fate now cleared.

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