Il Presidente Iraniano Ebrahim Raisi durante la commemorazione per la Guardia della Rivoluzione Qasem Soleimani

Iran: power vacuum following the death of President Raisi

The death of President Raisi and the power vacuum

On May 19th, 2024, the helicopter carrying President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and other high-ranking officials of Tehran’s regime was involved in an accident. The following day, Iranian state television officially announced their deaths.

Ebrahim Raisi was a controversial figure in Iranian politics. By some, he was seen as the people’s president, a leader who, through his rhetoric, sought to represent the interests of Iranian citizens. Many others considered him the right hand of the Ayatollah, a faithful executor of the Supreme Leader’s will, committed to maintaining control and suppressing dissent.

Before becoming president, he held several high-level positions within the Iranian judicial system, including Prosecutor-General and Chief Justice of Iran. His presidency was characterized by a hardline stance on many domestic and international issues.

Raisi’s death has created a significant power vacuum in Iran, opening up scenarios of political uncertainty and potential internal conflicts for succession, similar to the prolonged period of disorder and conflict seen in Libya with the fall of Gaddafi.

The issue of succession is now of fundamental importance for Iran. At the moment, there is no clear favorite for the role of president, but the Iranian population is showing increasing fatigue towards the Ayatollah and his repressive regime.

Dynamics and causes of the accident

On May 19th, 2024, while the presidential convoy was returning from the inauguration of a dam in Khoda Afarin, on the border with Azerbaijan, the helicopter carrying Raisi crashed due to adverse weather conditions, according to official sources.

The area, characterized by mountainous terrain and dense forests, made rescue operations particularly difficult. Adverse weather conditions further complicated the recovery efforts.

The helicopter was a Bell 212, purchased in the 1970s when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, an ally of the United States, ruled the country. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran continued to use many American-made aircraft. However, sanctions made it difficult to obtain spare parts, forcing Iran to resort to smuggling and reverse engineering to keep them operational.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have recently insinuated that the blame for the fatal accident lies with the American sanctions.

It seems reasonable to ask why Raisi, despite the ties between Iran and Russia and the exchange of technologies between the two countries, was using such an outdated American helicopter. Additionally, the decision to have the president and the foreign minister travel in the same aircraft, despite the convoy consisting of three helicopters, seems questionable.

Where did President Raisi’s helicopter crash?

Iranian sources

According to official Iranian sources reported by the BBC, the helicopter and the bodies were found about 2 Km southwest of the village of Uzi and 58 Km south of the Giz Galasi Dam in Eastern Azerbaijan.

However, tracing a perimeter of 58 Km around the Giz Galasi Dam (39.179339, 47.032936) and one of 2 Km around the village of Uzi (38.730833, 46.672778), in the center of the image, none of the intersection points are southwest of the latter, raising doubts about the accuracy of the initial data.

Intersections of the given reference points
Intersections of the given reference points
Interactive map

To resolve this discrepancy, a translation or estimation error could be hypothesized. By considering the Giz Galasi reservoir (39.169167, 47.017500) instead of the nearby Giz Galasi dam, and compensating for possible estimation errors with +/- 1 km from the 58 Km around the reservoir (area marked by blue lines) and +/- 500 meters from the 2 Km around Uzi (area marked by red lines), a zone (outlined by yellow lines) emerges whose formation could match the conditions seen in the images taken at the crash site.

Intersection of reference points with correction and compensation
Intersection of reference points with correction and compensation
Interactive map

Turkish sources

According to reports from the Anadolu Agency, owned by the Turkish government, an Akinci drone identified a heat source suspected to be the wreckage of the helicopter carrying President Raisi and shared its coordinates with Iranian authorities.

The coordinates shown in the video point to an area about 8 Km northeast of the village of Uzi, approximately 10 Km from the location reported by the BBC, highlighting a discrepancy between the two sources.

Coordinates from the Turkish drone footage
Coordinates from the Turkish drone footage
Interactive map

Reactions to news of Raisi’s death

Reactions have been mixed, highlighting a complex landscape.

Following the president’s death, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared five days of national mourning, a measure that highlights Raisi’s importance and significance. Raisi’s death isn’t only the loss of a leader, but represents the end of a key instrument of the regime.

Raisi has already been widely described as a martyr by various internal sources, a designation with significant implications that could be used to consolidate public support and delegitimize opponents. It could also serve to blame specific internal factions or foreign powers in the future, thus justifying potential political purges or future repression.

The opposition, on the other hand, has reacted differently to the news. Many activists have recalled his role in human rights violations. His role in the so-called death commission during the 1988 mass executions earned him the nickname “Butcher of Tehran.” Some segments of the opposition have seen his death as an opportunity to question the legitimacy of the regime and promote greater political freedom in Iran.

The reactions of the population have been mixed. A portion of the population observed the days of national mourning declared by Ayatollah Khamenei. However, those who suffered under Raisi’s repressive policies received the news with relief, and many celebrated.

Political and social context of Iran

Iran is an Islamic theocracy whose Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei, holds the highest power and has the final say on all state matters, including the supervision of the armed forces and the media.

The President of Iran is the head of the government and is responsible for implementing the laws and policies approved by Parliament. He appoints the government ministers and manages the country’s economic, social, and administrative policies. However, his power is limited by the Supreme Leader, who can influence his decisions and has the authority to remove him from office.

Before the death of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran was experiencing a period of intense internal and external turmoil. Internally, the country was marked by growing popular discontent due to the repression of human rights, difficult economic conditions, and large-scale protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022. These protests saw significant participation and were harshly repressed by the regime, intensifying the divide between the government and the people.

Externally, Iran was facing international pressures due to its nuclear program and tensions with the United States and Israel. Sanctions imposed by the United States had exacerbated the economic crisis, increasing inflation and unemployment. International relations were tense, with Iran involved in conflicts in Syria and Yemen, responsible for a recent attack against Israel, and a supporter of the Houthi rebels.

Future scenarios and political prospects

Raisi wasn’t simply one of the likely candidates to succeed the Ayatollah, he was the candidate personally groomed by the Supreme Leader himself. Ali Khamenei had meticulously prepared Raisi for succession, positioning him as the preferred choice to ensure continuity of the principles and policies of the Islamic Republic. His death created a significant power vacuum in Iran, with potential consequences ranging from internal struggles for succession to military intervention, and even large-scale popular uprisings.

Possible candidates for succession

Vice President Mohammad Mokhber was appointed interim President by Ayatollah Khamenei to lead the country until the presidential elections scheduled for June 28th, 2024. His appointment is seen as a signal of continuity, with Mokhber stating his intention to follow the path set by Raisi without interruption. His relations with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the support of Ayatollah Khamenei make him a strong contender to become the full-time president.

The possibility that Mojtaba Khamenei, son of the Supreme Leader, may succeed his father as the leader of Iran is a subject of debate. Mojtaba wields significant political influence, partly due to his connections with security apparatuses, including the IRGC. However, the Islamic Republic has historically opposed hereditary succession, considering it contrary to Islamic principles. Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution, repeatedly spoke out against hereditary rule. According to internal sources, Ali Khamenei also opposes the idea of his son as a successor, arguing that it would raise suspicions of nepotism. Despite these challenges, Mojtaba has supporters within the political establishment and is believed to potentially emerge as a strong candidate, especially if backed by powerful security groups.

Some Iranian media speculate that Jamileh Alamolhoda, the widow of the late Raisi, might also run in the presidential elections. However, the Guardian Council has never approved a female candidacy for the presidency since 1979. Furthermore, Jamileh is said to have displeased Khamenei with her interference in state affairs during her husband’s tenure.

The competition for the presidency could intensify with other government officials and influential figures potentially entering the race, including members of the Guardian Council or the Assembly of Experts. This situation could lead to internal divisions and tensions, with rival factions trying to consolidate their own power.

The role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

The IRGC is an elite military force created after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, with the aim of protecting the Islamic system and preventing coups and internal uprisings. During a power vacuum, like the one created by Raisi’s death, it could intervene to try to stabilize the situation and prevent chaos. Additionally, its influence could increase further if it decides to openly support a presidential candidate or take a more direct role in the government.

A military intervention could provide temporary stability, preventing the power vacuum from leading to prolonged conflict. However, an increase in the power of the IRGC could also intensify repression and further limit civil liberties. The Iranian population, already exhausted by difficult economic conditions, could react with further protests and violent clashes.

Long-term consequences, however, could be complex and dangerous, with significant international repercussions. The United States would view the increase in power of the IRGC with concern, as it is designated as a terrorist organization, leading to a tightening of economic sanctions and further isolation of Iran on the international stage.

Risk of protests and popular uprisings

The growing discontent with the regime could trigger a wave of popular uprisings and protests. For some time now, the country has been marked by significant internal tensions, with a population weary of political restrictions and difficult economic conditions. The death of Raisi, a key figure in the regime and its repressive policies, could be seen as an opportunity for opposition movements to intensify their protests.

Recent Iranian history shows that significant events, such as the death of Mahsa
Amini in 2022, can quickly turn into large-scale mass mobilizations. These protests, often led by young people and marginalized groups, could erupt in response to political instability and lack of reforms. The designation of Raisi as a martyr could further polarize society, creating a sharp divide between supporters of the regime and those calling for change.

Popular uprisings and protests could have profound effects on Iran’s internal stability. The regime might respond with even harsher repression to maintain order. However, a repressive response could fuel resentment, further weakening the regime’s legitimacy.

Economic and social consequences

The power vacuum in Iran is not simply a political challenge, it has the potential to cause profound economic and social consequences, worsening an already critical situation. A period of prolonged instability risks destabilizing an economy already severely tested by international sanctions.

Worsening social tensions could lead to increased migration, with many Iranians seeking better living conditions abroad. This phenomenon would only further impoverish the country, depriving it of precious human resources and fueling the economic crisis. Social inequalities could increase, fueling discontent and creating a cycle of protests and repression that risks further breaking the social fabric.

Furthermore, instability could make Iran more vulnerable to external interventions, with foreign powers such as Russia and China able to exploit the chaos to advance their own geopolitical interests.

Global reactions and geopolitical implications

The United States is carefully observing the evolution of the situation, especially in relation to the increase in the influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This could lead to further tightening of economic sanctions and increased diplomatic pressure.

Israel and the Gulf countries, already concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Tehran’s support for militant groups in the region, could intensify their intelligence and sabotage operations against critical infrastructure in order to contain Iranian influence.

Russia and China may try to exploit the power vacuum to strengthen their ties with Iran. Both countries have strategic and economic interests in the region and could offer political and economic support to stabilize the Iranian regime and ensure their long-term influence.

Reflection on Iran’s future prospects

Iran’s future appears uncertain and full of challenges. Competition for succession could intensify, with various political factions seeking to consolidate their power. This internal struggle could lead to greater instability and a weakening of the regime.

On the economic front, Iran faces a deep crisis. International sanctions, combined with economic mismanagement, have led to severe inflation and high unemployment.

On a social level, growing popular discontent could explode into new waves of protests.

Final considerations on possible ways out of the crisis

To emerge from the current crisis, Iran may have to consider a series of political and economic reforms. Reducing repression and opening up dialogue with various political factions and opposition groups could help reduce internal tensions. Furthermore, a stronger commitment to respecting human rights could improve Iran’s image internationally and pave the way for a reduction in sanctions.

On the economic front, the new government will have to adopt measures to improve the living conditions of the population. This will require significant reforms and more transparent and efficient management of national resources.

Finally, on the international level, Iran could try to rebuild diplomatic relations with Western countries, negotiating a new nuclear agreement that offers security guarantees in exchange for the removal of sanctions.

About the author

Daniel Patrick Mahoney, Italian-American, is a geopolitical and intelligence analyst at Hermes – Center for European Studies.

He is a member of the Working Group on Geopolitical, Strategic, Economic and Intelligence Analysis, as well as the Working Group on Defense & Space.