Raisi’s unexpected passing impacts the supreme leader’s efforts to maintain ideological control and navigate internal and external pressures

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on May 19 in a helicopter accident occurred at a sensitive time in the history of the Islamic revolution. The country has been experiencing feelings of superiority inherent in Iran’s Shi’ite heritage, a concentration of power in the hands of conservative ideological circles, and regional empowerment coupled with a sense of victimization, all while facing severe domestic and external challenges.

On one hand, Iran’s regional status from Bab el Mandeb Strait to the Mediterranean Sea has been upgraded, with the “axis of resistance” under its leadership strengthened, and Hamas dealing Israel a severe military and moral blow. Additionally, the country has made progress in its nuclear program, strengthened ties with China, and sold advanced weapons systems to Russia. On the other hand, there are feelings of paranoia, international isolation, economic distress, low public support at home, and a failure to address societal issues, especially ensuring freedom and welfare.

While the role of the president in Iran may not be critically significant, the president needs to coordinate with the supreme leader, remain loyal to the ideological line, and carry out his policy faithfully. The record of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s relations with the four presidents who preceded Raisi—Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Rouhani—was not ideal. Khamenei demanded loyalty to the ideology of the revolution, while they sought some pragmatic flexibility to fulfill their duties and safeguard the interests of the republic. All were sidelined after their terms, along with key officials in the revolutionary regime, and were not allowed to run for public office.

Faced with the inherent tension between ideology and interests, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ruled in 1988 that when a clash between ideology and interest arises, interest prevails. In recent years, the question has arisen regarding whose interest—the interest of Islam, the Islamic revolution, the state, the ruling elite, or the supreme leader?

As far as Khamenei is concerned, they are all the same, as outlined by the supreme leader. In this respect, Raisi suited him perfectly, primarily due to Raisi’s unconditional loyalty to and total dependence on the supreme leader. He preferred to be an apparatchik over a charismatic figure who showed signs of independence.

Raisi’s empowerment was a project Khamenei had been working on in recent years to oversee the transition to a new phase of the Islamic revolution, perpetuate his legacy, and pass it on to a new generation that would be revolutionary and Islamic. Despite Raisi’s derogatory nickname, “The Butcher of Tehran,” for sentencing about 5,000 prisoners to death in 1988, Khamenei promoted him to head of the Supreme Court in 2019 on the way to the presidency in 2021. His job was to ensure the transition to the next era, regardless of who would become the next supreme leader: him, Khamenei’s son Mujtaba Khamenei, or someone else.

Raisi’s death disrupts Khamenei’s orderly process of consolidating his legacy and the planned transfer of power to a new, revolutionary, and Islamic generation. The revolution is now at a critical crossroads. Public support for the regime has fallen to an all-time low and many fear adventurism across the border. The confrontation with Israel has shifted from a shadow war to direct attacks by each on the other’s territory. Furthermore, the significant capital Iran invests in its proxies has drawn criticism at home, and there is also criticism from the proxies who claim that Iran does not participate enough in the war effort. The war in Gaza has not yet changed the regional architecture, and international sanctions have not been lifted.

Iran is a threshold state, very close to acquiring nuclear weapons, needing only a decision and a short time to achieve this. Tehran recently negotiated with the United States, mediated by Oman, to renew the nuclear agreement, but this may now be delayed. A critical date for both processes is the US presidential election.

Among the Iranian public, dissatisfaction with the regime is growing while support for it is fading. In the 2024 Majles (Iranian parliament) elections, voter turnout was the lowest it has been since the revolution (41%, with 8% invalid votes), and turnout in each of the 31 provinces was the lowest since the revolution. Similarly, in the 2021 Iranian presidential elections, voter turnout (48%) was the weakest since the revolution’s beginning. This is a bleak picture for a regime that boasted high voter turnout as evidence of broad popular support. Instead, there are protests, most recently under the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” in 2022-2023, and criticism of the regime is increasing.

Source » themedialine