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Iran’s next president will be just as powerless The upcoming election is no game of thrones

Iranians mourn President Ebrahim Raisi (ATA DADASHI/MOJ News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

Iranians mourn President Ebrahim Raisi (ATA DADASHI/MOJ News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

June 11, 2024   7 mins

It took nearly 24 hours for the regime in Tehran to finally confirm that the deeply unpopular and uncharismatic Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other prominent officials, including Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abodollahian, had died when their Seventies-era helicopter crashed in the north of Iran. Considering the highly unexpected nature of the incident and the Iranian state’s characteristic lack of transparency, conspiracy theories about the crash proliferated, with some raising the possibility of sabotage by an external actor such as Mossad or even a rivalling faction within the country.

Both possibilities, however, are unlikely: the former ruled out by the Iranians’ uncharacteristic but persistent denial of any foreign interference, and the latter by their fixation with regime stability and national security. And yet, while speculation on the cause of death seems inconsequential, with elections due to take place later this month, the incident highlights the ever-diminishing significance of the presidency in the Islamic Republic.

In its current form, Iran‚Äôs presidency was established in 1989 through a major revision to the Iranian constitution as part of a power-sharing agreement between Ali Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Khamenei replaced the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader, who was to have more of a supervisory role as the head of state. Rafsanjani became the head of government as president, overseeing a more powerful and independent executive. The intervening decades, however, saw an initial power struggle and clash of personalities between Khamenei and Rafsanjani that resulted in the increasing marginalisation of the presidency: Khamenei moved to eliminate challengers to his authority, and to concentrate power in an ever-narrowing circle of loyalists and trusted advisors. The upshot has been the mortgaging of the Revolution‚Äôs republican tenets to sustain its Islamist and revolutionary drives and ensure strategic continuity under the direction of the Supreme Leader‚Äôs office (known as the Beit).

This exclusionary process culminated in the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi, whose most defining characteristics were his mediocrity and subservience. His lack of sophistication and charisma combined with his unquestioned loyalty to the Supreme Leader allowed him to secure the top public-facing and politically sensitive positions in the Islamic Republic, such as the Head of the Judiciary, prior to his tenure as president. Raisi appealed to Khamenei and his Beit precisely because he was the perfect LARPer, compliant enough to be included in the circle of trust and play the roles delegated to him, but one who was neither effective nor charismatic enough to eventually muster a popular (or even populist) challenge to the Supreme Leader‚Äôs authority as previous presidents had done. Raisi‚Äôs deficiencies, combined with his lack of a genuine public base, also made him palatable to the rest of the Establishment ‚ÄĒ as he was never a serious contender to become Khamenei‚Äôs eventual successor. Finding a similarly pliable yet consensual replacement might not be as straightforward.

It will entail a new game of electoral musical chairs carefully orchestrated by the Beit and the closely aligned Guardian Council. Although the Islamic Republic is not monolithic, state policy is decided by the Supreme Leader through consensus-building among informal power brokers, including the IRGC, hyper-revolutionary reactionaries, pragmatic Islamo-technocrats, parastatal economic foundations known as the bonyads, and ultra-conservative clerics and seminarians. The caveat behind the largely successful consolidation of power around an informal group of insiders is the disempowerment of Iran’s formal government institutions.

Indeed, Khamenei‚Äôs first public message in the early hours of the crash that the country‚Äôs affairs would continue ‚Äúwithout disruption‚ÄĚ was more than mere rhetoric: it signalled the weakening and decentring of the presidency itself. The Iranian president is effectively reduced to being the regime‚Äôs chief operating officer at best and its public spokesman at worst, with key decisions on both personnel and policy being made elsewhere. Raisi‚Äôs presidential tenure was punctuated by public gaffes and meme-worthy episodes that provided a comedic foil to his lack of fitness and executive experience, making a mockery of the office. In one such clip that went viral, Raisi is seen responding to public grievances about economic hardships faced by the working class by aloofly asking them if they had been given lunch, which made for a stream of jokes that in the wake of his crash Raisi himself had become lunch for the bears.

There is a lot of commotion and speculation inside Iran regarding the identity of the country’s next president, partly owing to public intrigue about the balance of power and further fuelled by a state media looking to boost voter participation from the record-low turnout of the legislative elections in March. Of the 80 people registered to run in the special election on 28 June, only six were approved by the Guardian Council. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was perhaps the most high-profile candidate to be deemed unfit by the Council. Similarly rejected was Ali Larijani, the former speaker of the Iranian Parliament (the Majles) and JCPOA supporter who was expected to be a strong candidate uniting moderate conservatives with pragmatists close to former President Hassan Rouhani.

The final list of presidential candidates includes several contenders from the different wings of the conservative Principlist camp along with one reformist. Among the Principlists vying for the country‚Äôs number two position is Saeed Jalili ‚ÄĒ the notorious ideologue and former chief nuclear negotiator in the Ahmadinejad era who is strongly backed by the regime‚Äôs most extremist, ideological, and autarkistic faction. The reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian‚ÄĒformer Minister of Health in the administration of Iran‚Äôs popular former president Mohammad Khatami and current representative from Tabriz ‚ÄĒ has found early momentum and could be the dark horse. An ethnic Azeri and officially backed by the reformists, he is a relatively surprising inclusion likely approved to entice more people to vote, especially in northwest Azari region of Iran. His chances hinge on whether he can get the disaffected Iranian urban middle class that has largely boycotted recent elections to return to the polls, a tall order in the wake of the Mahsa Amini protests.

When the news of Raisi‚Äôs death first broke, initial expectations were that the current interim president Mohammad Mokhber ‚ÄĒ a close confidant of the Supreme Leader and formerly in charge of his finances and the major bonyads linked to him ‚ÄĒ would be Khamenei‚Äôs preferred choice for the role. Yet Mokhber‚Äôs unexpected decision not to run after overnight consultations with the current head of the Majles and former Tehran Mayor Ali Ghalibaf, and the latter‚Äôs U-turn to announce his candidacy on the last day of registrations, strongly suggest that Ghalibaf ‚ÄĒ who has the better name recognition ‚ÄĒ may have emerged as the Beit‚Äôs preferred candidate. A former IRGC commander, Ghalibaf not only boasts strong links with the country‚Äôs security apparatus but also embodies the regime‚Äôs pragmatic instincts.¬†Despite his reputation for corruption and lavish spending, when all is said and done, Ghalibaf may be the candidate around whom many in the establishment could coalesce.

In practice, the upcoming election will be mostly performative, a highly propagandised and theatrical affair orchestrated by the Beit and its chief of staff Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani. Regardless of who becomes the next president, he ‚ÄĒ like Raisi ‚ÄĒ will owe his position to the Supreme Leader and his Beit and be expected to stick to Khamenei‚Äôs line. Iran‚Äôs true game of thrones will only commence after Khamenei‚Äôs eventual demise and the genuine succession crisis it may trigger. Still, a presidency often reflects the personality of its occupant. Given the Principlist establishment‚Äôs ‚ÄĒ and Khamenei‚Äôs own ‚ÄĒ apprehensions about a potentially ‚Äúdeviant‚ÄĚ or non-revolutionary successor who could weaponise the power of the presidency to finally bring about the revolution‚Äôs Thermidorean moment and radically transform the Islamic Republic, the nation‚Äôs executive branch looks set to be helmed by obsequious foot soldiers and mediocre yes-men for the foreseeable future.

“Iran‚Äôs true game of thrones will only commence after Khamenei‚Äôs eventual demise.”

The systematic, if pre-emptive, purging or banishment of influential figures, especially former presidents, who dared to defy Khamenei‚Äôs will (even if only occasionally and privately) was meant to foreclose the possibility of future deviancy or fundamental transformation. It is why reformists close to Khatami (who the conservatives disparagingly call the liberal mullah) are almost entirely cut off from power, and why Ahmadinejad‚Äôs rejection was a foregone conclusion. The establishment‚Äôs paranoia about change and obsession with purity has radicalised the system, particularly its next generation, many of whom are alumni of Imam Sadegh University and see themselves as the true heirs of the Revolution. Ironically, the hardliners associated with this faction (sometimes labelled Paydari) are devotees of Jalili and regard the older generation and especially the more pragmatic among them like Ghalibaf (who has called for a ‚Äúnew Principlism‚ÄĚ) as too modern, materialistic, corrupt, and non-revolutionary. Indeed, the one interesting rivalry to watch for in the upcoming election could be the showdown between Ghalibaf‚Äôs Islamo-technocratic supporters and the ultra-revolutionaries rallying behind Jalili to get a sense of the two camps‚Äô appeal and relative clout within the Islamic Republic‚Äôs rank-and-file.

In many ways, the Bell 212 helicopter tasked with Raisi’s transport represents the state of the Iranian presidency: it has become little more than an empty shell reduced to a quasi-functional and semi-ceremonial role. But it’s an even better metaphor for the Islamic Republic itself: another relic of the Seventies that is simultaneously modern and archaic and whose external metallic frame and complex machinery hide its internal corrosions and outdated instruments.

Some might even say that there is a degree of poetic justice in the chopper‚Äôs crash being caused not by nefarious machinations from the outside but by the natural elements, its own ageing equipment, and its inability to adapt to real-world conditions. Considering the severe mismanagement in the run-up to the crash, the botched emergency response, and its media fallout, the event revealed what has become a near truism of Persian history: that given time, Iranians are ultimately their own worst enemies. Consider, for instance, that the CIA had actually botched its planned 1953 Coup against Iran‚Äôs then-prime minister Dr Mohammad Mossadegh, and that his downfall occurred only days later in a cascade of events whose major protagonists were the Iranians themselves ‚ÄĒ mainly due to an unholy alliance of Iranian royalists, bazaar merchants, mobsters, and clergymen like Ayatollahs Kashani and Behbahani (who had turned against Mossadegh for his secularism), coupled with Mossadegh‚Äôs own intransigence, overconfidence, and underestimation of his enemies. Not to mention how Tehran was so paranoid about a potential US military response in the aftermath of its 2021 retaliatory strikes on America‚Äôs Al-Asad airbase in Iraq that it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger airliner killing all on board to international and domestic outrage.

The crash symbolises yet again that, despite looking formidable from the outside and displaying a particular nous for navigating geopolitical crises as most recently displayed during its latest tit-for-tat with Israel, the Islamic Republic is far less robust and judicious internally. Indeed, Raisi’s death underscores the fact that Tehran is at its most vulnerable when left to its own devices and not actively provoked by its foreign strategic competitors, leaving it unable to use the spectre of international conflict to rally its forces behind its flag.

For all its faults and strategic missteps, the Biden administration has at least shown the foresight to engage with the Iranians at critical junctures to prevent escalation and reach a mutual understanding on regional security as evidenced by a series of third-party talks in Oman. Whether a new Trump administration would display similar restraint and play the long game by pursuing an interest-based and transactional relationship with Tehran is an open question. (During his first term, Trump was repeatedly attacked for his supposedly transactional approach to foreign policy, but his Iran policy, largely left to the Neocons, was especially provocative, hawkish and ideological.)

Still, Bell 212‚Äôs crucial lesson for the outside world is to exercise strategic patience in dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran ‚ÄĒ for ultimately all revolutions devour themselves and implode under the weight of their own shortcomings and contradictions. Considering how eight years of the Western-backed Iran-Iraq War and decades‚Äô worth of international sanctions actually strengthened the IRGC and undermined the Iranian people, we must learn that foreign interference, provocation and war will only delay ‚ÄĒ not quicken ‚ÄĒ that eventuality.

Arta Moeini is the Director of Research at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and founding editor of AGON.


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John Tyler
John Tyler
1 month ago

The West will continue to pretend that the new president (who will, of course, be a man) is a valuable player in negotiations over matters that are completely out of his hands. The West’s leaders will do almost anything to appease the theocrats and terrorists who are in control and whose strongly-stated desire is to utterly destroy our way of life.

J Boyd
J Boyd
1 month ago

But for all Trump’s provocative and hawkish approach to Iran, I seem to remember the Iranian regime being much more restrained during his presidency.

Whereas Biden”s “pragmatism” and engagement has seen much more Iranian aggression and sponsorship of terrorism/war by proxy.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago

”…which made for a stream of jokes that in the wake of his crash Raisi himself had become lunch for the bears.”
Too soon.