Will Ebrahim Raisi’s Death Help Ultra-Hardliners ‘Make Iran Great Again’?

The May 19 deaths of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a fiery helicopter crash has created a challenge that Iran’s leaders have not faced in decades. A veteran hardliner and close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, Raisi’s March election to the Assembly of Experts—a body that will choose the next Leader—had positioned him to be a major contender for the most powerful office in the land. His sudden demise has surely shaken the elderly Khamenei, who has worked hard to ensure that his quest to “ideologically purify” the state will be sustained by his successor and his allies, especially in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

That aspiration will be tested in the coming weeks, as Iran’s leaders prepare for an unanticipated presidential election on June 28. Khamenei and his hardline allies will pull out the stops to ensure that the poll produces no surprises. Still, Raisi’s death has injected uncertainty into a regime that has been purged of both reformists and veteran conservatives. Many such political actors fear that the stripping away of every vestige of democratic practice will leave Iran’s rulers totally isolated from a population already tired of force-fed religious dogma and economic incompetence.

Will Iran’s growing legitimacy crisis affect the upcoming election or the succession battle that will follow 85-year-old Khamenei’s eventual passing? Some Iran watchers argue that having grabbed nearly total power, a rising generation of ‘Make Iran Great Again’ (MIGA) ultra-hardliners will secure a victory for one of their own, even if the turnout on June 28 dips below the already record-low 41 percent recorded for the March 1 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections. But others believe that Raisi’s untimely death may ignite a power contest in the very heart of the succession battle.

These scenarios are not mutually exclusive. Versed in the complex art of regime survival, Iran’s leaders may be able to placate MIGA hardliners while modestly re-opening the system through the election of a conservative president who is also acceptable to the security apparatus. Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear. Iran’s ongoing transition from Islamic republicanism to Islamic hegemonism will hinder US-Iran diplomacy, especially if the American election in November produces a clash of two populists.

Hassan Rouhani’s Lament

In an open letter published six days before the grim events of May 19, former President Hassan Rouhani lamented that the hardline-dominated Guardian Council’s disqualification of him and former parliament speaker Ali Larijani from the March 1 elections  raised “questions about the republicanism” of the Islamic Republic itself. Echoed by reformist newspapers, Rouhani’s criticism drew predictable ire from hardline papers, one of which, Javan, accused Rouhani of effectively belonging to the Iranian opposition. Insofar as “opposition” implied those who oppose the very existence of Islamic Republic, Javan essentially was accusing a former Iranian president of a treasonous stance.

This wild accusation underscored the resolve of an increasingly powerful group of ultra-MIGA hardliners to banish ideological rivals from the political system. Paradoxically, Rouhani’s election in 2013 reinforced the resolve of this expanding alliance of clerical absolutists, security officials, and opportunist apparatchiks to reshape the political system and counter such rivals. With Khamenei’s backing, these ultra-hardliners have undermined the tools and institutions that had once given rival elites some room to compete for public support through elections. Raisi’s election in 2021 seemed to herald an irreversible transition from Islamic republicanism to Islamic hegemonism, as Rouhani decried in his May 13 letter.

The Successor Struggle and the Risks of Islamic Hegemonism

While the dice has long been weighted against the reformists, it became even more loaded due to two related changes in the political system.

First, Raisi’s election as President seemed to put a last nail into the “dual executive” system. Since the early days of the Islamic Republic, this system invited friction between an elected president and an unelected Supreme Leader whose status as “God’s representative on earth” allowed him to reign without a popular mandate and near absolute power. Raisi’s total alliance with and dependence on the Leader—and the fact that he was considered a top candidate to succeed Khamenei—not only created the possibility that henceforth the President would be a mere lackey. It also deprived reformists and more pragmatic veteran conservatives of the constitutionally blessed means to mobilize supporters behind their bid for the presidency.

Second, Khamenei’s role as “chief arbiter” among rival factions had given reformists and mainstream conservatives a path to influence the Leader’s decisions. But over the last decade, the institutional and economic expansion of the Office of the Leader—combined with its growing integration into the security apparatus and the IRGC in particular—has diminished this arbitrating role. However “supreme” the Leader is, he is now tied to ultra-hardliners who want to stamp out all opposition, are suspicious of diplomacy with Western powers (especially the United States), and seek a ruler who speaks for them only.

Khamenei’s successor must placate the absolutists while not losing the Leader’s arbitrating function.

Khamenei’s successor must placate these absolutists while not losing the Leader’s arbitrating function. This tricky balancing act will require someone with proven political experience and skills, sufficient religious credentials to be seen (or accepted) as a leading mujtahid or interpreter of Islamic law, and a close partnership with the security apparatus, especially the IRGC. If Raisi fit this bill far better than other potential candidates, this was because of his lengthy service and because ultra-hardliners had eliminated other rivals. With his death, the risks that come with the ultra-hardliners’ drive for hegemonic power are clearer than ever.

It is anyone’s guess how Khamenei and his allies will manage this challenge. An intense internal political struggle is unlikely, but it is also unlikely that Iran’s leaders will settle for what many inside and outside Iran may now see as the most logical choice: Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba. Apart from the large political and religious holes in Mojtaba’s resume, many Iranians would see any serious bid to inherit his father’s mantle as creating the very monarchy that the Islamic Revolution’s architect, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, asserted should never exist in Iran. Reports that Khamenei himself rejected the idea of his son becoming the next Supreme Leader suggest that Mojtaba—who has extensive links with the security apparatus—would be better off continuing to influence events from behind the scenes.

Moreover, even though the regime moved quickly to prevent any protests following Raisi’s death, Rouhani’s warning a few days earlier about the erosion of “republicanism” might now reverberate with greater effect. Indeed, the ruling elite has good reason to worry that if a Supreme Leader is chosen without an iota of independent credibility—or who is seen as merely a creature of the IRGC—the regime will become even more isolated. After two years of street protests, the logic of selecting a Leader whom hardline clerics and many security officials love but is hated by much of the population may be unappealing. Having sidelined many contenders and remaining beholden to its MIGA populists, it is unclear how the regime can climb out of the deep hole it has dug for itself. Yet it may still try to find a candidate who can squeeze into the Leader robe.

Will the June 28 Presidential Election Help the Regime Dig Out?

One way to mitigate this dilemma is to permit more presidential candidates. Raisi’s death probably made this choice easier because some sidelined political figures might have the opportunity to run.  Furthermore, because none of the candidates for the presidency are actually clerics, whoever wins the June 28 election will not be able to use the president’s office to compete in the leadership succession battle to come.

Indeed, the revival of such a “dual executive” might be a small price to pay if a new president has credibility with all the key factions as well as Khamenei’s trust, positioning the new president to lead a government drawn from the parliament’s hardline majority. Such a candidate would not necessarily garner more voter support than parliamentary candidates did in March. Yet he might balance the hotheads pushing the regime to intensify repression at home and confrontation with the United States and Israel.

One leader who might serve these multiple purposes is current parliament speaker and past Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qhalibaf. A former IRGC commander, he has ties to several factions, including to veteran conservatives. He also reportedly argued for dialogue in the wake of the women’s rights protests that shook Iran in 2022 and 2023. After being re-elected as speaker on May 28, Qhalibaf could enter the campaign with an advantage over hardline rivals, even though he has lost three previous presidential races.

The revival of a “dual executive” might be a small price to pay if a new president has credibility with all the key factions

Another possibility is former parliament speaker Ali Larijani. He is the son of a prominent cleric and the brother of the equally ambitious Amoli Larijani. Over the last few years Ali Larijani’s influence waned as ultra-hardliners tried to push him and his brother outside the circle of power. Their campaign culminated with the Guardian Council’s decision to disqualify him from running in the 2021 presidential elections. The controversial move cleared the path for Raisi’s election and prodded Larijani to repair his frayed ties to Rouhani. It also motivated Larijani to court reformists by openly criticizing the regime’s crackdown during the women’s rights protests of 2022—criticism which he repeated in 2023 when he warned that “some people have mistaken political power with the use of force.”

While such criticism surely vexed Khamenei, following Raisi’s death Larijani reportedly met with the Supreme Leader to discuss running in the June 28 contest. That he reached out to Khamenei even before Raisi was buried signals the desire of veteran conservatives to counter their hardline rivals. Even as Khamenei’s quest to purify the system continues, reviving conservatives’ fortunes could work in the Supreme Leader’s favor by recapitulating his role as the grand arbiter, allowing him to deflect pressure from MIGA true believers. In short, Larijani’s bid for the presidency could be a win-win for him and Khamenei.

That is about the most optimistic read of the political situation as one can have, since other hardline leaders are likely to join the race with the Leader’s backing. These include Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2007-2013 and currently Khamanei’s personal representative on the Supreme National Security Council; Mohammad Mokhber, Raisi’s vice president who is serving as  acting President until the June election; and Parviz Fattah, a former high-ranking IRGC official who heads the state-owned enterprise Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Orders (EIKO). Any one of these men or another veteran hardliner might be the safest bet to protect Khamenei’s legacy. But each option carries risks. Beyond narrowing the huge gap between regime and populace, the election of a new hardline president could give MIGA leaders space to press for a more confrontational stance towards Israel and the United States.

Whither No Peace, No War?

When it comes to relations with United States, despite his provocative language Khamenei has often been the adult in the room, deflecting his younger followers’ demands to move beyond what we might call his “no war, no peace” resistance strategy. Stretched to near breaking point by Israel’s Gaza war, this strategy survived the eruption of direct hostilities between Israel and Iran in April. But it may be put to the supreme test if Iran continues—or worse, accelerates— its nuclear enrichment program, which has been assailed by the Biden administration and by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Without a diplomatic process that might reimpose more effective limits on the nuclear program, the chances increase that US and Israeli leaders will feel compelled to take direct military action.

That very prospect led Khamenei to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. But with that international nuclear agreement seemingly dead and buried, even if Khamenei were ready to return to negotiations, he or his successor might be pressed by ultra-hardliners to reject talks—or to embrace policies that make talks a fruitless enterprise. Such hardliners  include Ali Bagheri Kani, who became Iran’s acting foreign minister following Amir-Abdollahian’s death in the May 19 helicopter crash. As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator starting in 2021, and a close ally of Jalili, Kani advocated a tough line during indirect talks with the United States. Whether he continues as foreign minister or not, one thing is clear: Iran’s leaders will be under intense pressure to expand an “Eastern” foreign policy based on an alliance with Russia, China, and other non-Western states. Indeed, even if Khamenei or his successor want to keep Iran’s diplomatic options open, MIGA leaders might have other ideas. Here again, the ongoing shift to a hegemonic “Islamic” system could exact an extremely high cost for the Islamic Republic.

It should be noted that in former President Rouhani’s recent letter defending “republicanism,” he decried the collapse of the JCPOA and what he claimed was the obstinacy of Iranian officials during indirect talks with the United States. His bitter words highlighted both the defunct nuclear agreement negotiated by Rouhani’s government and the pragmatic vision of Iranian engagement favored by reformists and even by some more mainstream conservatives. These figures see an end to US-led sanctions and a reopening of Iran’s economy to Western investment as vital to the country’s overall security.

Iran’s hardliners and their MIGA contingents reject this vision. Their quest to Make Iran Great Again reflects not only their ideological urges but also their concrete economic interests. Many of their interests are deeply sunk into huge “charitable” entities linked to the Office of the Supreme Leader and to Khamenei in particular, and to a vast network of IRGC-tied enterprises. These include the construction of new dams reportedly managed by a “water mafialinked to the security apparatus. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Raisi’s helicopter crash followed his inauguration of one such dam. Still, it is worth noting that many of the above-mentioned hardliners who might enter the presidential race have extensive connections to these networks. The massive corruption associated with these leaders is unwelcome news for a country suffering from endless economic problems and an escalating legitimacy crisis. But one can hope that ultra-hardliners will recognize that their own business interests could suffer a huge hit in the absence of a diplomatic exit strategy from a path potentially disastrous for Iran and the region.

Featured image: President.ir