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Iran’s president has died. What happens now?

Iran has a succession plan – and a population that’s deeply dissatisfied with the current regime.

- May 20, 2024

Iran’s state media has confirmed the death of President Ebrahim Raisi. A helicopter carrying the president, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and other senior officials and presidential aides crashed on Sunday, May 19, in inclement weather in a mountainous region of Iran near the border with Azerbaijan. 

To consider these developments, Good Authority contributor Christopher Clary spoke with Hussein Banai, an associate professor of international studies at Indiana University and the author or co-author of several books on contemporary Iran, including Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict and Hidden Liberalism: Burdened Visions of Progress in Modern Iran

Christopher Clary: What does this news mean for the political structure of Iran? Do we have any sense of who will replace Raisi and Amirabdollahian – or the next steps in the process? 

Hussein Banai: The constitution of the Islamic Republic is clear on the line of succession if the president dies during his tenure. According to Article 131, the first vice president, with the approval of the supreme leader, will be appointed interim president for a period of two months. Accordingly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has just confirmed First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as interim president.

Concurrently, a council “consisting of the Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, head of the judicial power, and the first deputy of the President, is obliged to arrange for a new President to be elected within a maximum period of fifty days.” 

A special presidential election would pose unique challenges to the system in Iran since the most recent parliamentary elections recorded the lowest turnout in the 45-year history of the Islamic Republic. Given Iranians’ widespread dissatisfaction with the regime, it will be intriguing to see whether the Guardian Council (the body charged with vetting the qualifications of candidates for political office in Iran) would allow for pragmatist or moderate candidates. 

A top prospect from the moderate camp would be the former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the urbane and skillful architect of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy that resulted in the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (plus Germany). Zarif’s recent carefully crafted appearances with student groups and critical audiences had sparked speculations about a possible presidential run after Raisi’s second term. 

The replacement procedures following the untimely death of a cabinet minister are similar to the appointment of new ministers. An interim minister will be put in charge for up to three months, according to Article 135, while a nominee for the post is presented to the parliament for approval. The current deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, was named acting foreign minister on Monday. An experienced diplomat from the conservative camp, he currently heads Iran’s nuclear negotiating team and previously served as the deputy secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, from 2007 to 2013.

Would Raisi’s death have any clear implications for U.S. foreign policy or regional stability at this point? 

Although Iran’s president is in principle in charge of the executive branch of government, the final word and total authority over sensitive national security matters rests with the office of the supreme leader in the Islamic Republic. As such, Raisi’s death would not result in any changes to the substance or strategic outlook of Tehran’s foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond.

All the same, the sudden loss of the two most senior officials of the regime could certainly affect how Tehran supports and coordinates with its proxies and allies at a particularly volatile time in the politics of the region. Coming on the heels of recent high-profile assassinations of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) senior commanders by the United States and Israel, the president and foreign minister’s deaths not only deprives Khamenei of two dutiful hardline functionaries (and in the case of Raisi, a potential successor to Khamenei), but also certainly underlines impressions of an embattled and fragile regime. Managing the perceptions of vulnerability and internal instability will therefore be a top priority for the office of the supreme leader in the coming days and weeks. 

What developments will you be watching for? 

The Islamic Republic is already in the midst of perhaps the most severe crisis of political legitimacy since its inception. Iran’s economy remains in tatters due to endemic mismanagement, corruption, and international sanctions. The severity of social and political crackdowns on nationwide protests against mandatory hijab laws has further exposed the massive gulf between the regime and the populace. And ordinary Iranians have become deeply resentful of the regime’s prioritization of its bellicose regional policies in support of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In light of these background realities, I will be watching to see if the temporary spotlight on leadership considerations would expose new fissures among political elites who are insiders (i.e., those who enjoy the support and trust of the supreme leader) and outsiders (i.e., those who have fallen out of favor, but who still represent important constituencies within the regime itself). And it’s possible that restive feelings among the public will pool into protests once again. 

Amid all the uncertainties, one thing seems certain. Given the omnipresence of the IRGC in both the domestic and regional pictures, expect to see IRGC interference in either the political process or the public sphere.