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Raisi’s Death and Iran's Geopolitical Trajectory

By James Raftery

Analyst on the Middle East and North Africa Desk


The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will likely lead to a consolidation of hardline conservative power at the heart of the regime. Coupled with a possible rise in elite factional discord, it will maintain the Islamic Republic's economic and geopolitical trajectory, leading in the longer term to further political upheaval, state retrenchment and regional strife. Raisi died on 19 May 2024, alongside the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister and a group of aides, when their helicopter crashed on a journey passing through the country’s Northwest.


Raisi was elected by a landslide vote in a June 2021 presidential election marred by low turnout and accusations of vote rigging. A loyal follower of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, he was seen by many as a potential successor to the 85-year-old whose rule is sure to come to an end soon. Raisi had close ties to the conservative clerical establishment as well as Iran’s military and security forces after the 1979 revolution that ushered in the country’s Islamic theocratic government. Throughout his career in various roles within the Iranian state, he repeatedly used its power to crack down on dissenters and protestors: in 1988, he is said to have overseen the extrajudicial execution of thousands of dissidents, while as President, he led the suppression of protests throughout his tenure whilst steering Iran toward tighter conservative morality laws.

There is little doubt among analysts that the next President will likely govern in a similar vein. An emergency election held on 28 June will be stage-managed by Khamenei. “The point of this manipulation is to prod Iranian policy in the direction he wants it to go—elections are a signaling device, not an opportunity for voters to express their preference,” says Patrick Clawson of The Washington Institute. The Guardian Council – a body of lawyers and conservative clerics empowered to disqualify potential candidates – will, as in 2021, select a narrow field comprised of hardliners and conservatives offering no challenge to the regime or Khamenei.


Candidates will be drawn from the regime’s extant political elite. The hardline Mohammad Bagher Ghalibef, the speaker of the Assembly of Experts (parliament) with close ties to the military, may well run. Saeed Jalili is another hardline conservative and former candidate who lost to Hassan Rouhani in 2013. The interim President Mohammed Mokhber is another potential who is thought of as being an apparatchik loyal to Khamenei. Whilst the next President will not be a significant break from the conservative mould, the greater significance is that the winner will likely be President when Khamenei dies and the next Supreme Leader is appointed. 


Clerical and military influence

With this question of Khamenei’s succession looming, the past decade saw the erosion of the reformist sections of the elite – typified by Rouhani – in favour of the more conservative and hardline factions, who have themselves competed for influence in Iran’s economic and foreign policy.


The clergy and military are the most influential groups within the regime. Under Iran’s constitution, many influential positions – including the Supreme Leadership, senior roles in the judiciary, the parliament and half of spaces on the Guardian Council – must be filled by clerics, intrinsically giving religious elites significant political influence.


The power of the military, and in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s most important military and security institution, is hugely significant. Due to its organisation, economic power, and military-security responsibilities, it is more powerful than the clergy. It is both a military force employed to keep order domestically and a projecting force in a growing number of strategic interventions across the region.


Iranian analyst Marie Abdi notes that while the IRGC is controlled by the Supreme Leader, who appoints key personnel – often loyal clerics – across the group’s leadership, it is likely to grow in strength following Khamenei’s death. His successor will be lower in stature, with less popularity both within the regime and among the public, and will be more reliant on the IRGC’s military, security and economic power to maintain his position. “It can be expected that the IRGC's relative dependence on the supreme leader will decrease during the rule of his successor, while the supreme leader's reliance on this military institution is likely to increase,” says Abdi.

Now that Raisi cannot succeed Khamenei, the most likely next Supreme Leader will be Mojtaba Khamenei, the current ruler’s son. He will govern Iran in a similar ideological vein to his father, though without popular support or a power base in the regime, he will be even more reliant on the IRGC to rule.


Economic troubles

Under the next President and, eventually, the next Supreme Leader, there is likely little change in the overall strategic picture. A government taking the Islamic Republic down the same trajectory it is currently on will lead to a further deterioration of its economic situation.


The US and its allies, including the EU and the UK, have for decades led sanctions against key individuals and organisations (including the Supreme Leader and IRGC) involved in human rights abuses and nuclear proliferation activities, as well as against key strategic industries. Nearly all trade with Iran is banned, while its energy, financial, shipping, construction, mining, manufacturing and textiles sectors all have sanctions against them, hitting Iran’s capacity for international exports as well as the competitiveness of its domestic industries. Sanctions have hugely complicated attempts to modernise the Iranian aviation industry, something believed to have caused Raisi’s crash. The state's strategic choices, including intensifying support for paramilitary organisations across the region and continued violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have contributed in recent years to a tightening of these sanctions.

Corruption is rampant in Iran, with the IRGC itself controlling vast swathes of the economy. This corruption, alongside the sanctions regime, has contributed to Iran’s poor economic performance, which is marked by persistent inflation and low economic growth. Revenues from oil exports have been lower than expected due to the government's policy of supplying hydrocarbons at no charge to Assad's Syria, as well as the price discounts offered to China. Revenues are also hit by complex financial mechanisms involving front companies and other arrangements that are in place to help foreign end buyers avoid sanctions. The riyal, Iran's currency, has devalued since the onset of the Gaza war, while Iranians have been converting riyal-based assets and savings into foreign cash and gold in an attempt to hedge against devaluation and further inflation.


It is highly probable that these trends continue. The regime will continue to pursue strategic goals that are overall to the detriment of the Iranian economy. It will likely see further imposing of sanctions, falling living standards as prices rise and the currency is devalued, and further depletion of reserves. Greater public political upheaval will follow, met with brutal repression and further retrenchment of hardline security forces and the oppressive regime.


Iran’s regional activities

The new President, whoever he is, will also be unlikely to change Iran’s foreign policy towards the US and the wider Middle East. One of the foundational principles of the Islamic Republic is an opposition to the US and its closest regional ally, Israel. The extent to which this doctrine has driven actual practice has fluctuated over decades – with former President Rouhani having pursued nuclear negotiations with the US and the lifting of sanctions – but the current highly tense relations will continue. Through the IRGC and its Quds Force (the organisation’s elite, secretive arm responsible for overseas operations), Iran has supported and funded paramilitary groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia organisations in Iraq and Syria, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in southern Yemen.


Though each of their relationships is distinct and each group operates within its own political context, Iran will likely continue to support these groups by providing arms, funds and training in order to assist their efforts. The escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict in October 2023 saw these Iranian-supported proxies step up their attacks on Israel and its allies, from Hamas' attacks on Israeli citizens to Hezbollah's launching of missiles on Northern Israel and escalating Houthi attacks on US and Israeli vessels in the Red Sea.


While spring saw a further escalation, with Iran itself for the first time launching direct rocket attacks on Israel, such actions have – so far – been limited enough to allow Israel to respond without triggering full-blown conflict between the two states.


In the short term, while the next President will be a hardliner, it is unlikely that he will seek to continue ramping up regional tensions to an extent greater than Khamenei permits. We can expect Raisi’s death to have a limited impact on the Middle East's regional conflicts and geopolitics – Khamanei will carry on calling the shots. In the longer term, however, Khamanei's successor may find himself more beholden to the IRGC and more inclined to support its activities across the region. This may deepen regional tensions and further escalate conflicts in the Middle East.


Eastern consolidation

One of the most noted geopolitical trends in recent years has been the cooperation of powers sidelined and isolated by the West. Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and its subsequent assumption of international pariah status amongst Western powers has made it a natural ally of Iran, with both aligned in their strategic interests against the West. Coupled with China’s growth in global political and economic power, each of these states has an interest in working to subvert US hegemony and assert its global dominance.


We can expect a continuation of the development of economic and military cooperation between Iran and Russia. Maximilian Hess, Principal of Enmetena Advisory, says that “Raisi’s death is highly unlikely to have any meaningful impact on Iran’s relationship with Russia, though the two sides will double down on strategic efforts to counter Western sanctions and potentially even formalise a new partnership in helicopter aviation at some point”. Iranian exports to Russia increased by 16 per cent in 2023, with a particular emphasis on the defence sector. As Russia seeks to capitalise on Western reluctance to support Ukraine, we expect to continue to see this partnership deepen.


Following Raisi’s death, China has already sought to bolster strategic cooperation with Iran. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said: “Beijing will continue to deepen its strategic partnership with Tehran, safeguard the shared interests of both countries and continue its efforts for peace in the region and the world”. We can expect China to continue buying Iranian oil, which it currently does at over a million barrels per day, as well as to continue playing a role in supporting Iran geopolitically, such as its brokerage of last year's accord between Riyadh and Tehran.


Conclusion

While President Raisi’s death will likely cause some short-term regime instability in Iran, with an emergency election at the end of June, Khamenei will likely usher in a loyal, conservative hardliner who will continue to govern as the Supreme Leader wishes. This President will likely see Khamenei's successor, his son Mojtaba, continue to govern in his father's footsteps. This will mean further repression in Iran, little prospect of liberalisation or reform, and the strengthening of the paramilitary IRGC.


On the international stage, Iran will continue to strongly oppose the US and Israel and will continue to fund its network of proxies that feed conflicts in the Middle East. It will continue to push its nuclear development programme, making chances of a détente with the US and sanctions relief extremely unlikely. Its economy will continue to deteriorate, with falling living standards causing further domestic political upheaval and, in response, further brutality and human rights abuses from the state.


These trends will continue to encourage Iran to seek closer ties with nations such as Russia and China, further challenging US global hegemony as they develop new ways to support each other economically, militarily and diplomatically.

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