From RBC Daily, May 20, 2024 Condensed text:

Note. – . . . Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash. Read RBC’s report for details about how this will affect Tehran’s foreign policy course and its relations with Moscow.

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How Raisi’s death will impact the domestic political situation.

Even though Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash came as a major shock to the country and the entire world, it is unlikely to lead to serious political changes, said experts polled by RBC.

Vladimir Sazhin, senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, recalled that all power in Iran belongs absolutely to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Raisi was essentially the No. 2 person in the Islamic Republic. According to the expert, in recent years all branches of government in Iran – the executive, the judicial and the legislative – have been overseen by the radical conservative wing of Iran’s political establishment, to which Raisi also belonged. This group is heterogeneous and comprised of factions that are fighting for leverage. “The Iranian president’s death somewhat destabilizes the situation in the upper echelons of power,” Sazhin believes, although he rules out any revolutionary changes in the power system.

Under the Iranian Constitution, a new president must be elected in the republic within 50 days. Until then, First Vice-President Mohammad Mokhber will be acting president. Right now, five days of mourning have been declared in Iran, and no prominent politicians have publicly expressed the wish to run: A list of possible contenders will not appear for another four to six weeks.

Yelena Suponina, an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, said in a conversation with RBC that Iranian reformers, who are advocating for liberalization and democratization, might try to take advantage of the situation and field their own candidates. However, the conservatives’ positions are extremely strong and will only grow stronger in the wake of Raisi’s death. “The intensity of domestic political struggles could increase, but not much. I believe that as long as Ali Khamenei is around, the situation will stay under control,” she explained.

Even though Raisi was not the No. 1 official in Iran, he had every chance to become one. He was considered the most likely successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 85 (unlike the president, who is limited to two four-year terms in office, the supreme leader is a lifetime post). In Sazhin’s opinion, there is “behind-the-scenes fighting for the legacy” of the supreme leader in Iran, and Khamenei is involved in it. “Raisi’s death has changed the situation behind the scenes somewhat, and that has also become a destabilizing factor,” he believes.

Experts polled by RBC do not think the Iranian president’s death will result in large-scale antigovernment protests. Aleksandr Maryasov, an expert with the Valdai International Discussion Club and former Russian ambassador to Iran (2001-2005), believes that, on the contrary, the authorities will take advantage of the situation to rally the Iranians around the [country’s] leadership and the present political course. “Today, Iran lacks a strong opposition movement. At times, we see quite active protests by various sections of the population, but they are not united. There is no coordinating center, no consensus [political] figure or organization that would unite and lead the protest movement,” he explained.

Sazhin also suggested that in and of itself, Raisi’s death would not trigger mass protests, even though there were media reports about street parties following the news of the air crash. According to him, popular unrest in Iran is more often sparked by the actions of the morality police, as in the case of Mahsa Amini’s death after she was arrested for an “improper hijab” [see Vol. 74, No. 40, p. 19], as well as by the difficult economic situation. The expert pointed out that during Raisi’s presidency, the rial’s exchange rate to the dollar fell by a factor of almost three, and inflation reached 40% to 50%. Even according to official data from Iran’s Internal Affairs Ministry, between 20 million and 30 million Iranians live below the absolute poverty line.

Sazhin also recalled that the March parliamentary (majlis) elections showed complete public apathy. According to official data, turnout was 41% – the lowest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (according to unofficial data, turnout was even lower). “Of course, the president’s death will not directly change the situation, but certain instability at the top and general discontent at the grassroots level might lead to demonstrations. However, Ayatollah Khamenei and his subordinates, taught by their experience in fighting protests, can quell the discontent, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and other law-enforcement agencies,” he concluded.

Yelena Suponina suggested that Tehran’s opponents – the US and Israel – could destabilize the domestic political situation in Iran.

Some commentators peg Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who were killed in the crash, as pro-Russian politicians. The Iranian president played an active role in providing arms supplies to Russia for use in the military operation in Ukraine (Moscow and Tehran deny this). The experts polled by RBC all stated that Raisi’s and Abdollahian’s deaths will not in any way affect Russian-Iranian relations. “The figures who are temporarily exercising the duties of the late officials are committed to the same course toward close relations with Russia and China,” Suponina said.

Aleksandr Maryasov even suggested that cooperation between the two countries will expand, since this objective was set by Iran’s supreme leader. Moscow and Tehran have ended up in the same boat due to severe sanctions pressure and isolation attempts by the US and other Western countries. “Under such circumstances, the best option is to join efforts and intensify cooperation,” he said, recalling that Russia was instrumental in helping Iran join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS.

Whatever the case, the Iranian president’s death has raised concerns about a new escalation in the region. Those concerns were prompted by the spread of conspiracy theories about Israel’s involvement in the tragedy on social media, especially in the Iranian segment of the Internet. Last month, the two long-running regional opponents for the first time exchanged [air] strikes on each other’s territory (the Israeli Air Force attacked the Iranian diplomatic mission in Damascus, killing two high-ranking IRGC generals) [see Vol. 76, No. 16, pp. 3-9]. . . .

According to Maryasov, Raisi’s death is unlikely to escalate Iran’s relations with the US and Israel. The diplomat said that no serious changes should be expected with regard to the actions of Iran’s proxies in the region, especially Lebanese Hezbollah, which, in his words, will continue “to harass Israel” by shelling border areas.

A similar view is shared by Sazhin. “All policy vectors – be it foreign, domestic or economic policy – are determined by Iran’s supreme leader and his inner circle. Therefore, there will be no changes in foreign policy, despite the foreign minister’s death. Everything will remain as is: tensions with Israel, business relations with Russia, and anti-American rhetoric,” he stressed.

However, Suponina believes that a new round of escalation in the Middle East is inevitable. She suggested that Raisi’s death will not trigger any outbreaks of violence in the very near future, but later on it “will play its role” in destabilizing the situation in the region.