Death of Iran’s president will unsettle an already turbulent Middle East

Disillusionment with the Iranian regime has been exacerbated by the country’s poor economic performance

The death of Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi and foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian in a helicopter crash near the country’s border with Azerbaijan adds a new level of uncertainty to an already turbulent Middle East.

Whether their deaths will lead to any significant change in the short-term in Iranian politics at home or abroad is doubtful. In the longer term, however, this unexpected set of events will almost certainly have important and potentially challenging implications for the Islamic Republic, not least in relation to the question of succession to the office of the supreme leader, currently held by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Both Raisi and Abdollahian were seen as hardliners in Iran’s political spectrum. Abdollahian was appointed in 2021 to replace the moderate Mohammed Javad Zarif, a diplomat who was central to the conclusion of a 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Iran agreed with several global powers, including the US.

Under the terms of JCPOA it agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open facilities to international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars of relief from sanctions. Zarif’s successor, Abdollahian, by comparison, was closely aligned with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was initially set up by the country’s first post-revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, to protect the country’s Islamic republican political system.


In the meantime the IRGC has developed a significant military capacity as well as enormous economic resources. Abdollahian was close also to Qasim Soleimani who fostered links between the Iranian regime and armed groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. Soleimani was killed in 2020 in a US drone strike ordered by then US president Trump who had withdrawn the US from the JCPOA two years earlier and which he followed with the reimposition of stringent sanctions on Iran..

Raisi was also a hardline figure, a conservative Muslim cleric who throughout his career has been associated with some of the most brutal crackdowns on opposition in the history of the Islamic republic. As far back as 1988 he was a member of a four-person panel which ordered the execution of 5,000 dissidents in the aftermath of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. In 2019, as head of the country’s judiciary, he presided over the suppression of nationwide protests that had followed a spike in fuel prices and which led to the deaths of over 500 people.

In accordance with Iran’s constitution both offices have already been filled on an interim basis. Raisi’s vice-president, Mohammed Mokhber, has succeeded him, while Abdollahian’s deputy for political affairs assumes the role of interim foreign minister. However, the constitution further stipulates that a presidential election must take place within 50 days. This means that Iranians will go to the polls within months of elections in March which saw the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic republic.

Those elections were for two elected bodies – the Assembly of Experts and the parliament. In Iran’s complex political system the dominant institution is that of the supreme leader, who is appointed by the Assembly of Experts, which is popularly elected and has the constitutional right to dismiss him if it decides he has abused his authority, although this power has never been invoked.

Both the president and the parliament are also popularly elected. However, an unelected body, the Guardian Council, vets candidates for political office. Over the course of recent elections conservative and hardline Islamic figures have taken control of all branches of government. In the run-up to the elections in March of this year the Guardian Council disqualified anyone who posed a potential challenge to the conservative status quo.

Among those prevented from running for the Assembly of Experts was former president Hassan Rouhani, whose disqualification demonstrated the extent of the unwillingness of Iran’s conservative leadership to tolerate even marginally dissenting views on succession to the current supreme leader. Another former president, Mohammed Khatami, declined to vote in the parliamentary elections as an expression of the disillusionment felt by many in the country’s reformist camp, although he stopped short of advocating an outright boycott of the vote.

All of this is happening as popular alienation from governing structures has deepened. Nationwide protests erupted once more in September 2022 following the death in police custody of 22-year-old, Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly violating rules that require women to wear the headscarf. Months of protest followed in which 500 people died at the hands of the security forces.

Disillusionment with the regime is further exacerbated by the country’s poor economic performance. Despite being the world’s fifth most resource-rich country – it has the second largest natural gas reserves in the world and the fourth largest crude oil reserves – by 2022 some 30 per cent of Iranian households were living below the poverty line. Inflation has been running at over 40 per cent for the past three years, while the country’s currency, the rial, has dropped dramatically in value since 2021, from 250,000 to the dollar to more than 600,000 to the dollar.

Regionally, the Iranian regime is also under challenge. Its role at the heart of the so-called Axis of Resistance has antagonised neighbouring Arab regimes, Saudi Arabia in particular, as well as western actors, while its support for proxy actors has proved to be destabilising in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, not to mention its support for Hamas in Palestine.

In addition, while Iran’s limited response to Israel’s bombing of its consulate in Damascus in April of this year was welcomed by everyone who feared the outbreak of a major regional war, it was seen by some as indicating a surprising level of Iranian military weakness.

The deaths of Raisi and Abdollahian are unlikely to alter the direction of Iran’s domestic or foreign policies given the central role played by the supreme leader in both spheres. But Khamenei is 85 years old, reportedly in poor health, and Raisi was seen by many as a strong candidate to succeed him.

There has been considerable speculation that Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, might succeed his father, speculation which has deepened in the light of recent events. However, the notion of dynastic succession is an uncomfortable one for many leading figures given that the Islamic republic has its origins in the replacement of a dynastic monarchy in favour of leadership validated in terms of religious legitimacy.

Khamenei is now the longest serving head of state in the Middle East, having succeeded Khomeini in June 1989. Sooner or later the question of his successor will add to the challenges facing the Islamic republic of Iran.