Iron grip of Iran's clerical rulers cushions shock of Raisi's death

Sudden exit of the president could put Iran on path to hereditary rule, political analysts say

Ebrahim Raisi attends a meeting with Azerbaijan's President Aliyev by the Aras river at the Iran-Azerbaijan border. The Iranian President was to lose his life on the helicopter journey home. EPA
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The death of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi robs the clerical establishment that controls Shiite Iran of a crucial figure amid multi-pronged confrontations abroad and ahead of an expected political transition at the top.

Iranian authorities have confirmed that Mr Raisi died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. He was a potential successor-in-waiting to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as being an experienced enforcer and manager in the iron-fisted system of rule.

It was the first sudden death of a figure of such importance in Iran since the US assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in 2020.

The choreographed funeral of Maj Gen Suleimani, attended by leaders of ideological militia proxies of Iran, was used to convey Iran’s determination to keep up its Middle East reach.

This time, however, Mr Raisi’s death has more of a domestic impact, observers say, although he played main roles, together with Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who died with him, in charting Iran’s outside posture.

The unexpected exit of the president is widely seen as improving the chances of Mr Khamenei’s son, Sayyid Mojtaba, succeeding his 85-year old father in a tightly controlled domestic scene, after authorities crushed several protest and civil disobedience movements in the last 15 years.

A father-son scenario, however, would no longer differentiate Iran from other hereditary republics in the Middle East, and could face more obstacles within the establishment, compared with Mr Raisi, who was a relative shoo-in for the role.

In Egypt, for example, the late president Hosni Mubarak could not install his son Jamal, as he faced opposition from the military before the onset of the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011.

Waiel Olwan, senior researcher at the Jusoor Centre for Studies in Istanbul, said Mr Raisi was a “special case" that will be difficult to replace.

“As the main candidate to succeed Khamenei, he had a major say on internal and external policies," Mr Alwan said.

He and Mr Amirabdollahian "were not just part of the political kitchen in Iran".

"They managed the scene," he said, putting forward two scenarios.

The least likely, he said, is internal disruption that would weaken Iran's position in the ongoing conflict with Israel and the US amid the war in Gaza.

"It will disrupt the transition and handing over the files to a new team, but no more," said Mr Alwan, who pointed out that the security apparatus remains under control.

"The mastermind [Khamenei] and [his subordinates] in the establishment remain," he added.

Mr Amirabdollahian might even leave a “more significant legacy”, than the former president, said Lebanese political analyst Joseph Daher.

He cited Mr Amirabdollahian's closeness to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which contributed to his frequent travels to Lebanon to meet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The IRGC has fostered militant groups across the regions throughout the years, including Hezbollah, which collaborated in supporting President Bashar Al Assad in Syria's civil war and backing Iraqi security forces against ISIS militants. "Nothing has changed. The key actors in the foreign policy files, Iran’s supreme leader and the IRGC are still in place," Mr Daher said.

Hazem Ayyad, a veteran Jordanian political commentator, said replacing Tehran's foreign minister and the apparent successor to the supreme leader will create competition and temporarily "confuse the Iranian internal scene", but will not fundamentally weaken Iran abroad.

Mr Raisi, however, was seen as having built stronger relations with China, which helped withstand increased US sanctions, although some Chinese corporations have held back operations out of concern they will fall foul of US restrictions.

He was also an advocate of a tough stance on the nuclear file and in confrontations with Washington and Israel, although after more violent struggles with the US and Israel this year, Iran has pursued de-escalation.

But this has meant no let up in support for Hezbollah and the other militia players on whom Iran relies, political analyst Ali Safari said from Tehran.

“This support policy is not [made by an] individual; it is a fundamental policy within the Islamic Republic," he said.

The main impact of the helicopter crash, however, is its affect on the top of the pyramid.

Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdel Nour said unless a new figure emerges to challenge Mojtaba Khamenei, his path to power is almost assured.

“If there is a hereditary succession then the Islamic Republic will be basically transformed into a another Pahlavi empire, wearing an extremist Islamic gown.”

Nada Maucourant Atallah reported from Beirut

Updated: May 20, 2024, 5:34 PM