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Iran Braces for Uncertainty After President Raisi’s Death

Besides crushing dissent, the former leader did little of note. Could a new president be different?

An Iranian woman votes at a polling station in Tehran during the parliamentary runoff elections on May 10, 2024.

When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s helicopter went missing in the mountains on May 19, authorities initially responded by urging the public not to worry.

In a country accustomed to being on razor’s edge — only weeks before, Iranians feared Israel would launch a major attack within the country’s borders — the statement was intended to reassure people.

But it quickly turned into a joke.

“[Supreme Leader] Khamenei said, ‘Don’t worry, everything will remain stable,’” one version went. “Nothing will change … because Raisi wasn’t actually responsible for anything.”

Although Raisi was president, the joke implied, he didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things because the unelected (and very much alive) Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was really calling the shots.

Iran’s president in theory controls domestic affairs. But the joke reflected a widespread understanding of Iran’s political system, and Raisi’s role in it. While other Iranian presidents have tried to forge independent paths or even directly challenge Khamenei, Raisi was seen by many as a figurehead whose rise was largely engineered by a supreme leader looking for a complacent successor.

In the three years of his presidency before his death in the helicopter crash, Raisi was mostly known for overseeing an economy in freefall and crushing internal dissent, especially when Iranians took to the streets in protest after Mahsa Jina Amini died in police custody in 2022. Raisi spent decades in Iran’s judiciary, and was condemned by critics for his role in the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners, as well as presiding over a more recent wave of executions following the protests.

Even his 2021 election victory wasn’t his own doing; all real competitors were disqualified, resulting in the most unfree election in Iran’s recent history. Voter turnout was a dismal 49 percent, compared to past elections where it ranged between 70-80 percent.

But among hardcore supporters, Raisi was adored for his credentials as a conservative cleric favored by Khamenei. He grew in stature after 2016, when he was appointed overseer of Imam Reza’s shrine, one of Iran’s most important religious sites.

But the shrine is not just a holy place. With an endowment of more than $15 billion, it is a major economic player, with investments in everything from infrastructure to mining to tourism. It has spurred the redevelopment of Mashhad, Iran’s second-biggest city, transforming it into a hub of transnational pilgrimage that sees 25 million visitors a year.

Raisi leaned on these credentials during his 2021 campaign, which centered around the slogan, “Iran is a shrine.” The phrase was based on a quote from the will of Qasem Soleimani, the influential Revolutionary Guard commander assassinated on Donald Trump’s orders in 2020, that originally read: “Iran is a shrine, and if this one remains, so will all the others.” It references Shia shrines across the region, which have been bombed repeatedly by groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS (also known as Daesh) — and even hit by U.S. forces — amid the spread of violence since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Iran’s leadership has used these attacks as the domestic rationale for its military interventions across the region, which are collectively referred to as “The Defense of the Shrines.”

The campaign slogan — and its context — underline how much the region’s militarization has redefined Iranian politics in recent decades. “Iran could turn into Syria” is an often repeated refrain among political leaders and the population, reflecting an official understanding of the Syrian conflict that blames the uprising on outside meddling and ignores the 2011 popular uprising, Bashar al-Assad’s repression against his people or Iran’s own military involvement in the war. That fear has propelled a mass emotional and financial investment in weapons technologies as a central source of security for the nation.

Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards have taken an increasingly powerful stake in the national economy. What began with reconstruction projects after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War has turned into a wide-ranging economic empire spanning business, trade and construction. They have been aided in this effort by U.S. sanctions on Iran, which have limited ordinary Iranians’ access to commerce with the outside world. Today, those connected to the Guards have an easier time succeeding in Iran’s increasingly isolated economy than the rest of the population.

Conservatives have blamed U.S. sanctions for much of the country’s misery, but have made few attempts to alter the situation beside insisting Iranians turn to self-reliance and a vaguely defined “resistance economy.” They attack Iran’s previous reformist President Hassan Rouhani for putting too much faith in the 2015 nuclear deal, co-orchestrated with former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, and its promised sanctions relief. They felt vindicated when Donald Trump ripped up the deal only two years after it was signed.

But the conservatives offered no clear alternative.

Instead, Raisi presided over a further nosedive in Iran’s economy. When I first started visiting Iran for research in 2010, the Iranian rial was trading at about 10,000 rials to the dollar. When Obama imposed new sanctions in 2012, it fell to around 40,000 rials. When Trump exited the nuclear deal in 2018, it lost another 75 percent of its value, hitting 200,000 rials. Today, the rate is around 600,000 rials to the dollar.

This collapse, triggered by U.S. sanctions and aggravated by domestic mismanagement and corruption, has led to hyperinflation and soaring rates of poverty and inequality. Ordinary Iranians have suffered the most.

Instead of improving the situation, Raisi oversaw violent crackdown after violent crackdown on those who resisted. This began in fall 2021, when protests over lack of water in Iran’s Arab-majority Khuzestan region exploded into nationwide rallies that the government crushed. It continued a year later with the outbreak of the Women, Life, Freedom movement in response to growing policing of women’s clothing in public. The state’s brutal response left hundreds dead.

The movement toward democratic reform that made slow and halting progress under Iran’s reformists reached a dead-end under Raisi.

His fear-based politics rallied the Islamic Republic’s base to its side, including the 18 million people who voted for him in 2021.

But it alienated millions of other Iranians who dream of a freer future — one not defined by fear but by hope, and the hundreds of thousands who have put their lives on the line to protest against the direction the country is headed. Many Iranians celebrated his death, telling jokes and holding parties to mark the passing of a man they considered a murderous tyrant.

Since Raisi’s death, new elections have been scheduled for this summer, presenting an opportunity for change.

Most observers doubt this will happen. But the hope among reform-minded Iranians is that an unexpected candidate may emerge that could push for a new direction — greater civil and political rights and an opening toward diplomacy with the United States that could bring sanctions relief. A president who could encourage civil society and channel its energy, rather than repressing it, could signal a dramatic new era for Iran.

Dozens of candidates registered before this week’s deadline. This includes several close to reformist former President Rouhani, like former Central Bank Chief Abdolnasser Hemmati and former Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, as well as hardline figures like Parliament Speaker Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, former Speaker Ali Larijani and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who oversaw the bloody 2009 crackdown on the Green Movement. Several women have also put their names forward, including former hardline MP Zohreh Elahian and reformist Hamideh Zarabadi.

But the big question is how many of these candidates will be approved to run and whether the supreme leader will allow for a more diverse range of voices in the elections.

This is especially crucial because of the question looming in the background: Who will become Iran’s supreme leader when 85-year-old Khamenei passes away?

Raisi was the top candidate. But with his death, few viable alternatives exist. Khamenei has alienated so many Iranians and surrounded himself with yes-men such that few convincing or charismatic figures have risen through the clerical ranks, while dissenters have been silenced.

Some have suggested that Khamenei’s son Mojtaba is a potential successor. He pulls strings behind the scenes and has been accused of intervening in election-rigging in 2009. Khamenei has never openly discussed this possibility, but it is taken seriously by anti-government protesters, who regularly yell at rallies: “Mojtaba, you should die, you will never be supreme leader!”

Father-son succession would make a mockery of Iran’s republican system, whose entire raison d’etre was overthrowing the hereditary monarchy of the Pahlavi Shahs. It would also be tantamount to heresy in the eyes of some devout Iranians — suggesting that Khamenei was a kind of religious figure whose holiness flows in his blood.

But for Khamenei’s followers, it could ease fears of potential chaos in a transition, which are at the front of their minds right now.

Raisi’s funeral procession traveled through Iran en route to his burial in Mashhad, drawing thousands of mourners and reflecting the continued popularity of the state among its defenders. While millions of Iranians oppose the Islamic Republic, millions of others strongly support it. And many more people — the so-called qeshr-e khakesari, or “gray class” — are critical of the state while also remaining skeptical of the alternatives.

These divisions have been silenced in manipulated elections. If the upcoming polls can be competitive, they could create room for healthy debate that comes closer to approximating Iranians’ views — and allows them to discuss them openly. But if Khamenei keeps silencing the large swathes of Iranians who disagree with him, and instead promotes his supporters as the only legitimate Iranian voices, it will continue a dangerous process of polarization.

Today, government supporters and opponents largely live in denial of each other’s existence, accusing each other of being paid off, either by the Iranian government or by its enemies, such as Israel and the U.S.

If cracks appear in the succession process — or if Israel steps up its attempts to stir up domestic tensions with the help of figures like Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah and one of Israel’s public allies — these disputes could turn bloody. Iranian opposition figures abroad like Pahlavi repeatedly call for regime change, but they have no plan for achieving it besides foreign military intervention. And as the case of Iraq since 2003 shows, this is a recipe for disaster.

But as more Iranians become alienated from their government and hopeless about the possibility of change, there is a growing chance that people will believe in unrealistic but dangerous proposals.

Khamenei has repeatedly warned that he must protect Iran from “turning into Syria,” but through bloody repression and polarization, he is leading Iran toward exactly that fate.

We saw this possibility clearly in the “Bloody November” protests of 2019. Thousands across the country protested an increase in gas prices. Security forces swarmed the streets, deploying informal, undertrained Basiji paramilitaries and unleashing extreme violence to crush the rallies.

At the time, I watched in horror as young men beat and slaughtered protesters, and as state media demonized them as rioters fueled by Israeli support who needed to be eliminated to save the nation. This dehumanizing language — in which other Iranians should be killed because of a disagreement over state policy — sets the stage for further violence.

Since the 1990s, Iranian elections, while never truly free, were at times open to different viewpoints, allowing more voters to channel their desire for change through the ballot box. They also always took place the year after U.S. elections, serving in some ways as a response. When George W. Bush came to power in 2001, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was subsequently elected. When Obama was in power, Iranians voted for reformist candidate Rouhani.

But now the dynamic will change permanently. From now on, Iran will choose its president months before the U.S. presidential elections. Voters will be picking a president to deal with the superpower before they know what the superpower is planning. This will be tricky.

By mid-June, the list of approved candidates for Iran’s election will be clear. It is unlikely that a wide variety of viewpoints will be represented. But if a reformist with vision and conviction manages to make it through, they might be able to mobilize the public — and push back on the growing wave of state repression.

And if a few months later, the U.S. can avoid another Trump presidency and Joe Biden can change course, reining in Israel’s genocide in Gaza and its militarism across the region while negotiating a new nuclear deal and removing sanctions on Iran, the chance of a democratic opening in Iran expands.

Unfortunately, both possibilities seem increasingly unlikely.

Instead, it seems that the potential for war across the region — and repression in Iran — will continue to grow.

That will be disastrous for Iranians, for Americans, for the Middle East and for the world.

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