Raisi’s Death Threatens New Instability for Iran

The sudden death of Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, opens a new chapter of instability just as the increasingly unpopular Islamic Republic is engaged in selecting its next supreme leader. Mr. Raisi, 63, had been considered a prime candidate, especially favored by the powerful Revolutionary Guards.

Even before the helicopter crash that killed Mr. Raisi, the regime had been consumed with internal political struggles as the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 85, the longest-serving head of state in the Middle East, is in declining health.

But given fears of instability at a time when the Islamic Republic is facing internal protests, a weak economy, endemic corruption and tensions with Israel, analysts expect little change in Iran’s foreign or domestic policies. Mr. Khamenei has set the direction for the country, and any new president will not alter it much.

The system is “already on a trajectory to make sure that the successor of the supreme leader is completely in line with his vision for the future of the system,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director at the International Crisis Group.

He described “a pretty hard-line vision” in which crucial areas of foreign policy, like support for regional proxy militias and developing components for a nuclear weapon, are not going to change.

Whoever is chosen as the next president, Mr. Vaez said, “has to be someone who falls in line with that vision, a subservient figurehead.”

Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, also sees continuity on major foreign policy issues, including regional affairs and the nuclear program. “These files have been under the control of Iran’s supreme leader and the I.R.G.C.,” she said, referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, “with Raisi having little influence during his tenure as president.”

“Raisi was certainly useful to some I.R.G.C. factions,” Ms. Geranmayeh said. Unlike his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, Mr. Raisi, a more conservative loyalist, “did not challenge the I.R.G.C. either on domestic or foreign policy issues,” she said.

But criticism of Mr. Raisi’s performance as president had already raised questions about whether he was the best candidate to succeed Mr. Khamenei, she said.

Mr. Raisi’s main rival was considered to be Mr. Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, 55, whose candidacy has been harmed by the aura of a monarchical succession.

With previous supreme leaders arguing that hereditary rule under the shah was illegitimate, “they would be hard-pressed to sell hereditary leadership to the Iranian people now,” said Shay Khatiri, a senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute, a research institution focused on superpower competition.

Mr. Raisi’s death may give Mojtaba Khamenei an easier path to succeed his father. But the internal workings of Iran’s religious and domestic politics are deliberately mysterious, and the decision in the end will be made by a council of senior clerics known as the Assembly of Experts. Though Mojtaba Khamenei, himself a cleric, is considered to be a favorite of the clergy, the assembly may yet decide to pick one of their own or have more of a collective leadership.

His father, the supreme leader, had worked hard “to reduce the unpredictability within the system by grooming President Raisi to potentially be his successor, and now all of those plans are out of the window and they’re back to the drawing board,” Mr. Vaez said. “They have to organize an internal election” for the next supreme leader inside the system “at a time that the regime is facing a severe crisis of legitimacy at home.”

As for the public election for the next president, supposed to take place within 50 days, there are worries about public indifference.

The regime has become increasingly divorced from the population, Mr. Vaez and others said, by cracking down on public dissent, including on women protesting the Islamic dress code and a lack of freedoms.

By disqualifying “any candidate who is even a loyal critic of the system,” elections have become a farce, Mr. Vaez said. “The Islamic Republic has really focused on ideological conformity at the top rather than legitimacy from below.”

That has produced enormous political apathy, with fewer than 10 percent of voters in Tehran turning out for parliamentary runoff elections just 10 days ago. “All the government cares about now is a smooth transition to the next supreme leader,” Mr. Vaez said.

A new administration, Ms. Geranmayeh said, “will inherit a broken economy and an even more broken social contract with a population that has been deeply frustrated with the Islamic Republic.”

Externally, the challenges are steep as well. Iran and Israel attacked each other directly in April, even as Israel is already fighting Iran’s military proxies — Hamas in Gaza and, less vividly, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran also sponsors the Houthis in Yemen, who have attacked shipping in the Red Sea.

Iran has worked to avoid a larger war between Hezbollah and Israel, and a direct conflict with Israel is also something the Islamic Republic can ill afford.

It has been holding intermittent talks with the United States on de-escalating the regional conflict and on the future of its nuclear program. The death of Mr. Raisi threatens to complicate those talks, too.

“While there will be no love lost in D.C. for Raisi, instability in Iran would come at a bad time,” said Trita Parsi, an Iran expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, making “escalation prevention all the more difficult.”

Since the collapse of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in 2018, when Donald J. Trump, then the president, pulled out of the arrangement, Iran has moved to enrich uranium very close to bomb grade, causing tensions, too, with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran has turned openly toward closer alignment with American rivals, especially Russia and China, which once supported the international effort to constrain Iran’s nuclear program but do so no longer.

Both countries have been buying Iran’s oil, despite international sanctions, helping to keep the Iranian economy barely afloat. Iran has been a crucial supporter of Russia’s war against Ukraine, selling it drones of all kinds as well as ballistic missiles in return for help with missile design, analysts say.

Increasingly, some Iranian officials speak of the program as a nuclear deterrent, even as the government insists that Iran’s program is purely civilian, and Mr. Khamenei has denied that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon.

The Revolutionary Guards Corps is considered increasingly powerful in both nuclear and regional affairs, taking advantage of Mr. Khamenei’s weakened health and the regime’s fear of internal instability. The larger question is whether the Revolutionary Guards, already a major economic player domestically, will become more openly powerful politically as well.

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