Raisi’s death: Iran must choose a safe transition pathway

Raisi’s death: Iran must choose a safe transition pathway

The regime will most likely impose a candidate who will continue Raisi’s policies (File/AFP)
The regime will most likely impose a candidate who will continue Raisi’s policies (File/AFP)
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The sudden death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a tragic accident last week has left the Iranian regime in a state of shock. Raisi’s passing is particularly impactful not just because it leaves a critical leadership position vacant at a crucial time for Iran, both domestically and internationally, but because he had played a key role in balancing Iran’s relations with neighboring Arab countries, as well as with Russia and China.

More importantly, Raisi was seen as vital for ensuring the regime’s stability in the post-Ali Khamenei era. His absence creates a significant void, with no other figure appearing qualified to fill his shoes, leading to ambiguity and multiple possible scenarios for the regime’s future.

This makes the selection of a new president a highly complex and sensitive task. It is not just about filling the presidential seat, but also concerns the overall future of the regime and the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih) system. The stability of Iran’s internal affairs and the balance of its foreign policies are at stake. The crucial question now is: What option will the regime choose to ensure its survival and maintain its stability?

One possibility is that the sudden departure of Raisi will compel the regime to appoint a figure with even more extreme tendencies to the presidential seat. This would align with the regime’s apparent strategy since the 2020 parliamentary elections, which has been to rely on the most dependable hard-liners in all institutions and decision-making positions, sidelining those with wavering loyalties, even if they are part of the regime. This trend was evident with the removal of figures like the Larijani brothers and barring Hassan Rouhani from running in the Assembly of Experts elections.

The trusted names currently being considered are all competing to showcase their hard-line credentials

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

This scenario is reinforced by the fact that the trusted names currently being considered are all competing to showcase their hard-line credentials. There seems to be no major figure capable of fulfilling the stabilizing role Raisi was expected to play. The selection of his successor may be influenced by the differing interests of various power centers within the regime. This situation could rekindle ambitions for the supreme leader position, potentially boosting the prospects of hard-liners affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards.

The ascent to the presidency of a hard-line figure affiliated with the most hard-line movement would have significant repercussions across Iran. Internally, the regime would likely become less tolerant of growing opposition groups and more stringent in using social control measures, intensifying clashes with society and widening the gap between the regime and the masses. This could exacerbate the economic crisis, deteriorate living conditions and lead to spontaneous protests, plunging the regime into an internal legitimacy crisis.

Externally, such a hard-line shift may result in a more confrontational Iranian policy toward neighboring countries, potentially undoing recent diplomatic efforts, such as the restoration of relations with Saudi Arabia, which had opened avenues to mitigate Iran’s problems and crises. This shift could provide opportunities for external forces seeking to destabilize or pressure the regime. The regime’s hard-line stance might also impact the nuclear issue, especially amid growing demands by hard-liners to alter Iran’s nuclear doctrine. This could lead to a direct confrontation with the US and the West, potentially dragging Iran into a costly conflict.

Another possibility is that the Iranian regime might allow reformists and moderates to participate in the June presidential election to make the race more competitive. This move would be aimed at reducing political tension and increasing voter turnout, which has reached its lowest levels in recent elections, particularly in the parliamentary elections last March, where turnout was the lowest since the 1979 revolution.

The most likely scenario is that the regime will impose a candidate who will continue Raisi’s policies

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

However, this approach would challenge the hard-liners' strategy of monopolizing power — a direction Khamenei likely does not favor. The hard-liners, who have successfully sidelined reformists and moderates from all decision-making positions, will likely work hard to obstruct any efforts to reintroduce these groups into political life, even if their participation is limited to merely running in the elections alongside other competitors.

The most likely scenario is that the regime will impose a candidate who will continue Raisi’s policies. During Raisi’s term, Iran made significant gains internationally, despite limited internal effects due to long-standing economic sanctions. Raisi’s strategy of turning eastward and strengthening ties with neighbors, such as the landmark agreement with Saudi Arabia, brought dynamism to Iran’s foreign relations. Although Raisi’s approach was not confrontational with the West, there were efforts to mitigate sanctions, achieving some breakthroughs.

Iran also managed to maintain a balance of deterrence following confrontations with Israel, while avoiding regional war by opening communication channels with the US. Even on the nuclear issue, Iran engaged in indirect negotiations with the US, mediated by Oman. Continuing this approach could help maintain the regime’s external achievements and potentially improve its internal situation.

This middle-of-the-road approach, blending ideology and realism, which Raisi adopted, aligns with the turbulent international and regional situation since Oct. 7, 2023. Continuing this approach would serve Iran’s interests internally, where there is significant tension due to deteriorating economic conditions and suppression of freedoms. Externally, it requires Iran to pursue a balanced policy that limits its isolation on both the regional and international levels.

So, the upcoming presidential elections will involve careful calculations to engineer an outcome that ensures a reliable, charismatic and legitimate candidate who can serve Iranian interests. This candidate will continue the general path set by the regime, a path significantly shaped by the late President Raisi. While the Iranian regime can manage the political vacuum left by Raisi's departure, the greater challenge is Khamenei’s succession. Various analyses agree that Raisi was pivotal in ensuring a smooth transfer of power after Khamenei, whether for himself or as a mediator. His absence creates a significant void that will be difficult to fill.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
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