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Iran is about to double down Ebrahim Raisi’s death will embolden the Ayatollah

People gather at Valiasr Square in Tehran to mourn the death of President Ebrahim Raisi (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

People gather at Valiasr Square in Tehran to mourn the death of President Ebrahim Raisi (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)


May 21, 2024   4 mins

It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving man. Ebrahim Raisi’s presidential career represented the worst of the Islamic Republic. As Tehran’s deputy prosecutor less than a decade after the revolution, he was a member of the so-called “death commission” that oversaw the massacre of more than 30,000 people in the summer of 1988, most of whom were members of the opposition Mojahedin-e-Khalq movement. Thousands were imprisoned and killed, often for the “crime” of distributing an opposition newspaper, or even just reading it. Few received any sort of due process.

It was a crime that sickened many even within the regime. It is perhaps some form of justice that Raisi was never able to shake the nicknames that followed: “the butcher of Tehran” or, less prosaically, Ayatollah-e ghatl-e ām (the Ayatollah of massacre). Even when he was elected to the presidency in 2021, while serving as head of the judiciary, it was with the lowest percentage of the vote in the Islamic Republic’s history.

He was also a lousy president. In a tenure marked by the systematic elevation of hardline figures at expense of moderates to key positions, the economy tanked, strafed by inflation at more than 40% while the Iranian Rial also plummeted. Then of course there were the anti-hijab protests that began in September 2022 when the country’s fetid religious police murdered 22-year-old Mahsi Amini for incorrectly wearing her hijab. The protests eventually spread to over 100 cities across Iran, during which the state murdered at least 551 people, including 68 children.

Raisi was talked about as a possible successor to Ayatollah Khamenei, who is — after years of rumours — finally dying. Already conspiracy theories are saying he was killed by rivals, notably Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, but this is nonsense. The truth is that Raisi never had a real chance. Firstly, because if Khamenei wants his son to succeed him, which he does, then that would probably happen — despite it being in total defiance of the republic’s founding principles, which rejected the dynastic principles of Iranian monarchy. But it is the fate of most revolutionary states to curdle into what they once most despised. And secondly, because no one beyond regime allies and a small percentage of religious and authoritarian headbangers actually liked Raisi. As well as the albatross of his butcher label, he was also a tedious man, lacking in any real charisma.

Of more relevance is what his death will mean for the state. Vice President Mohammad Mokhber has been named as interim president. Mokhber is part of a three-person council with the speaker of parliament and head of the judiciary that is now responsible for organising new elections for the president within 50 days. Mokhber, incidentally, was previously head of Setad — an investment fund linked to the Supreme Leader — and was sanctioned by the EU in 2010 for his involvement in “nuclear or ballistic missile activities”. He was subsequently removed from the list in 2012 but put back on in 2021 on account of his work for the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) — an organisation directly controlled by the Supreme Leader. The US Treasury, which also sanctioned him in 2013, claims that EIKO controls “large swathes of the Iranian economy, including assets expropriated from political dissidents and religious minorities, to the benefit of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and senior Iranian government officials.” Raisi’s immediate successor is thus cut from the same hardliner cloth — though his skills seem to lean toward stealing more than outright mass murder.

Raisi was a senior figure in the regime, but ultimately it was Khamenei who still ruled. His death is a destabilising event, but likely not a hugely significant one. This fact is clear from much of the regime’s rhetoric yesterday. In an official statement, Khamenei said that “the Iranian nation has lost a sincere, devoted and valuable servant”. The Cabinet described him as “a hero and servant of the nation and a loyal companion to the leadership [Khamenei]”, but critically added that there would not be the slightest disruption to the country’s management.

“Raisi was a senior figure in the regime, but ultimately it was Khamenei who still ruled.”

The regime also seems keen to stamp out rumours and conspiracy theory. While assorted nutters online are blaming the Israelis, a State-run news agency posted that the crash was due to a “technical failure”. This is almost certainly true: Raisi was travelling on a helicopter bought by the previous regime in the Seventies, part of a fleet that Iran had been unable to upgrade due to US sanctions on the aviation industry. Former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif duly blamed the US for Raisi’s death: “[The US] has sanctioned the sale of airplane and aviation parts to Iran and does not allow the Iranian people to enjoy aviation rights,” he said. “These will be recorded in the list of America’s crimes against the Iranian people”.

There you have it. An accident, though a happy one. If Karma does exist — and I have seen enough of geopolitics to be pretty convinced it doesn’t — it found Ebrahim Raisi yesterday.

What now for Iran and the wider region? Well, internally, the regime will ensure that it’s business as usual. A suitably pliant – and hardline – figure will be elected in 50 days’ time. It’s likely to be an uninspiring occasion. The 2024 parliamentary elections witnessed an even lower turnout than Raisi’s election, of just 41% (and even that is likely to have been massaged to some degree).

Regionally and globally the picture is more mixed. The Israelis pay close attention to political changes inside Iran, especially abrupt ones like this. With Raisi gone, any potential opposition to Mojtaba’s succession is now bereft of at least a figurehead around which to congregate. Jerusalem can now expect a pretty seamless transfer of power among not just ideological bedfellows but within the same family. Khamenei’s world view will almost certainly continue to dominate Iranian political thinking, and this means no détente with the West, and a foreign policy based on aggressive adventurism and ideologically unyielding conflict with Israel.

Despite the death of Raisi and his foreign minister, Khamenei believes the West and its allies are weak and divided. There are no indications that Mojtaba believes any differently. With one of his closest allies now gone and his health failing, Khamenei, already paranoid, will double down when it comes to ensuring his legacy is in place. Forward defence, the basis of Tehran’s grand strategy, holds that the Islamic Republic, a revolutionary state, will never suffer having done to it what it did to the Shah. It will always fight abroad so it never has to fight within. And that is bad news, not just for those in Israel and beyond, but for those who would see a better future for the Iranian people too.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

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David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

Even if the circumstances leading up to it were questionable in the extreme, sometimes a helicopter crash in the fog is just a helicopter crash in the fog. We shall never know. But having destroyed, in Artsakh, one of the oldest Christian civilisations in the world, Azerbaijan is the main supplier of oil and gas to those who are actively trying to destroy the oldest of all, including the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, burning down churches and spitting on priests as a matter of religious obligation. In turn, Israel arms Azerbaijan to the teeth, whereas Iran’s air fleet is not very advanced at all, even if neither Iran, nor Russia, nor China, quakes at the prospect of war with the country that cannot find enough planes to stage a parachute drop on the eightieth anniversary of D-Day.

Although it has made it all the way to his Wikipedia page, never before his death was Ebrahim Raisi called “the Butcher of Tehran”. Now, don’t get me wrong. He was a very nasty man. With very nasty enemies. The 1988 executions were mostly of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (Mojahedin-e-Khalq), which the Americans relocated to Albania between 2013 and 2016, not without local resistance, although it also maintains a considerable presence in the France of Emmanuel Macron, as well as an office in Cricklewood.

The longstanding neoconservative and liberal-interventionist aim has been to install as Iran’s new regime the weirdest political cult in the world, which has been based in exile since 1981, leaving it no constituency in a country of which half the population is under 30 years of age. Consider how the world turns, since that outfit was headquartered for many years in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where it participated in atrocities committed by the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard. When Raisi was slaughtering its members in Iranian prisons, then they were there for having waged a terrorist campaign in support of their country’s enemy in time of war, an enemy that had invaded that country. During the Iraq War, Biden’s, Bush’s and Blair’s Boys bombed the PMOI/MEK into surrender, as part of a deal with Iran to hand over certain al-Qaeda suspects who were of course in any case opponents of the Iranian regime. Oh, how the world does turn.

Opponents of the Iraq War were screamed down as Islamists and revolutionary Marxists due to the presence of a few of each in our enormous ranks. But now the plan is to hand over Iran to the people who really do manage the remarkable feat of being both, yet who were nevertheless closely allied to Saddam Hussein. Or is it? Affections seem lately to have been transferred to the ridiculous fantasist Reza Pahlavi, who is supported by a mostly elderly three per cent of Iranian-Americans, heavily concentrated in and around Los Angeles, and by almost no one else in the world. They have been prominent in the off-the-books state and institutional violence against the pro-ceasefire encampment at UCLA, along with the charming Narek Palyan.

Throughout this century, the Israeli flag has been prominent at Far Right events the world over, while the Iranian monarchist flag may also be seen at the small but vicious pro-Netanyahu counterdemonstrations in London, at which Palyan would be entirely at home. Those habitually assault the Police, who nevertheless have to tolerate them under political pressure to provoke a confrontation with the peaceful marchers for peace, and thus to provide a pretext for banning those events and for rounding up tens of thousands of dissidents for the Julian Assange treatment. If you rightly thought that that threat were real now, then imagine that the Prime Minister had been the Director of Public Prosecutions who had tried to send Assange to Sweden for transportation to the United States, and the Leader of the Opposition who had called for Gaza to be starved as a method of warfare.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

What distinguishes the ‘far-right’ from the ‘right’? I’m curious about that mythical thing, the ‘far-left’, which no one seems to have heard of or seen …… 😉 😉 😉

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

The usual rule with these things is that if you say that it does not exist, then you are it.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Answer the question, not the one you want to answer.

Define the difference between ‘right’ and ‘far right’.

Try to do so in less than a dozen paragraphs.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

The “far-left”? Have you heard of a guy named Corbyn?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

And John McDonnell, the Chancellor in waiting with Mao’s Little Red Book in his back pocket at the despatch box.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Wowee, that was tedious and paranoid, even by your usual standards.

A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Tremendous post David. Glad I happened to drop by whilst it was visible (i’m assuming it’s come and gone once or twice here over the last few hours. The neutral way Patrakakos mentioned the MEK as if they weren’t a violent bunch of religious and political extremists shows his biases rather nicely. I’m sure the response was brutal, but then I’m sure it would not have looked much different if they’d been operating from Telford or Tuscon rather than Tehran.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
30 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

You are very welcome. Yes, this comment comes and goes. And the MEK does operate both in France and in Britain.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

Official statement by President Michael D. Higgins Mon 20th May, 2024:
“May I, as President of Ireland, extend my condolences to the people of Iran on their loss arising from the unexpected deaths of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, President Raisi, the Foreign Minister of Iran, Amir-Abdollahian, and all those who died in the helicopter crash yesterday. On behalf of the people of Ireland, may I offer their families my deepest sympathies at this time of mourning.”

Congratulations, rather than condolences, might have been more in order. In either event, quite the contrast to the venomous tone applied to Israel in President Higgins’ public statements.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Most of the people of Iran are jumping in joy, that this horrible man is dead and wish that the whole Mullah regime would have fitted into that helicopter.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

That ghastly Sandinista leprechaun never did see a murderous revolutionary he wouldn’t cuddle up to. As a person of Ireland, I need to take a shower whenever he presumes to speak on behalf of me.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

It’s extraordinary that everybody’s forgotten how Higgins the ‘poet’ was elected as a supposed breath of fresh air after the banking collapse and the tarnished vision of the ‘Celtic Tiger ‘ among the ashes.

Be careful what you wish for.

Matt Maas
Matt Maas
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

“Sandanista leprechaun” is a fantastic phrase. Well done, sir!

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Maas

Worst Clash album ever! Heh!

General Store
General Store
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Unbelievable.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Sickening hypocrisy, teflon face.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Why do we have leaders like this? West has a death wish.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Hardly anyone is mourning the death of the tyrant. Everyone, including the close family, are just going through the motion of niceness. The guy was a real douchebag to everyone around him.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

It gets worse.
The Irish govt. have just recognised a “Palestinian State”.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Good article, and useful to be reminded how atrocious this regime has been over 4 decades and how many Iranians are the victims too. There is a reason we endeavour to contain them.
Like most Autocrats the regime can’t have freer, vibrant nations adjacent without panicking that will destabilise it internally. But it’ll also be v mindful not to create a spark that could ignite internally and such a spark could be provoking Israel et al into hitting it hard and direct. So rhetoric will remain out ahead and it’ll do most via it’s proxies careful not to overstep.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Absolutely right. This strategy is a reflection of how weak they really are. Israel and the US could destroy Iran in a week militarily, though we choose to let them destroy themselves.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago

An article using the words ‘headbangers’ and ‘nutters’ is hard to take seriously. Unherd, your standards are slipping.

General Store
General Store
1 month ago

Fine words. No need for delicacy where evil Islamicists are concerned

Simon S
Simon S
1 month ago

I think Unherd enjoys platforming ranters because it whips up bloodlust among so many members of the commentariat.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon S

UnHerd is the only forum where we are free to poke fun at and grossly insult the neanderthals. An outlet for strong feelings which becomes more and more necessary every day, bearing in mind the stupidity and gullibility of much of the West’s political class.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon S

No, Unherd is a platform for free speech and ideas. If you object, you are free to do so. My experience is the community is largely composed of free critical thinkers, unusual in today’s world. I applaud you for tuning in, no matter your opinion.

Duane M
Duane M
1 month ago

What is the Mojahedin-e-Khalq movement?
I confess that I knew nothing about them. So I went to the website of the United States Institute for Peace and this is what I found (https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2011/feb/22/mujahedeen-e-khalq-controversy):

The Mujahedeen-e Khalq Controversy
February 22, 2011

by Omid Memarian

The Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), or the People’s Mujahedeen Organization, was founded in 1965 as an urban guerilla group opposed to the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It participated in the 1979 Revolution but later broke with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini over ideology and direction. In 1981, it went underground. Now based in Iraq and Europe, the MEK is a Marxist-Islamist opposition group that seeks the overthrow of Iran’s theocratic government.
/…/

The Mujahedeen also backed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. State Department reported that, between 1999 and 2003, Iraq gave the MEK millions of dollars to purchase weapons and fund attacks against Iranian embassies, high-ranking officials, and military targets.
/…/

The MEK is now largely discredited in Iran, both with the regime and among the opposition. Leaders of the opposition Green Movement have denounced its goals and leadership. “The MEK can’t be part of the Green Movement,” said Zahra Rahnavard, a prominent opposition figure and wife of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. “This bankrupt political group now makes some laughable claims, but the Green Movement and the MEK have a wall between them and all of us”—including former President Mohammad Khatami and presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi.
/…/

Omid Memarian is a columnist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2007-2009 and the 2005 recipient of the “Human Rights Defender Award,” the highest honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch.

After learning that, and knowing that the President of Iran is mainly a ceremonial figure, I found little of interest in the remainder of Mr. Patrikarakos’ brief rant. But I hope he feels more relaxed after venting his anti-Iran spleen.

D. Gooch
D. Gooch
1 month ago
Reply to  Duane M

This was hardly an anti-Iran rant, but rather a fairly frank assessment of the situation there. What specifically do you object to? Given you didn’t even know who the MEK is, perhaps he knows more about Iran than you.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago
Reply to  Duane M

Is there some justification for being pro-Iran in its current state?

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago
Reply to  Duane M

You would have known about them if my comment had been left up.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Meanwhile, Team Biden and others in the West sent condolences. Condolences. Then again, Joe is carrying on his former boss’s plan of pretending that the ayatollahs are really great guys and not the world’s foremost sponsors of external terrorism. Much of the Western media has done a remarkable job of ignoring the state of Iran, the population’s dislike of its leadership, and the associated atrocities of maintaining power in a dictatorial state. The finger of shame is wagged in all corners, except toward Iran.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Incredible that Biden offers condolences to the country who leads the terror campaign against the US. At least Trump would tell it like it is. I am very, very tired of two-faced Joe and his party.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

Yet another vanished comment.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

This should turn up on here again some time in the next, oh, who knows when?

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
1 month ago

Raisi down, another neanderthal gets appointed to his place. The old fool Khameini is living proof that militant Islam rots the brain. I wish the whole lot of them could be taken out. The world would be much better off for it.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 month ago

“There you have it. An accident, though a happy one. If Karma does exist — and I have seen enough of geopolitics to be pretty convinced it doesn’t — it found Ebrahim Raisi yesterday”.
A fiery death was too good for this murderer. Nothing will change in Iran, the Supreme Leader will prevail as always. The religious leaders live in a fantasy world. My fantasy is that the people of Iran be given free choice without the threat of death or imprisonment.
There is nothing we can do to free the people of Iran. We can only contain the ambitions of their fanatical leaders.

A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago

The ‘doubling down’ statement at the beginning of this piece is almost certainly true as that’s what tends to happen after any unexpected death of a leader or significant figure in Iran’s neck of the woods. We’ve got a few decades worth of evidence from various US & Israeli assassinations to back this up.
Patrikarakos may cheer this one following Raisi’s role in the crack down on the MEK (who were IIRC considered to be a terrorist group by the US at the time – they certainly have been since), but I fear this will be another sorry case of ‘being careful for what you wish for’.

The Israelis assassination of the relatively moderate (in Hamas terms) Ahmed Yassin in 2004 is an obvious example, the bitter fruits of which are now abundantly clear.