Middle EastAnalysis

Scramble to be Raisi’s replacement could be unseemly, but Iran’s regime won’t soften

Reformists and candidates who do not enjoy the approval of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are certain to be disqualified from presidential election

Iran’s cabinet met in emergency session early on Monday following the deaths of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in a helicopter crash. The immediate succession was seamless, with vice-president Mohammed Mokhbar becoming interim president and deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani taking over external affairs. Their assumption of office was approved by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who told the public that governance would continue as usual.

Following the death of Raisi – a hardline judge and prosecutor who was promoted by Khamenei (85) as his potential successor – there could be an unseemly scramble for the post. The ayatollah’s son Mojtaba Khamenei (54), has been rumoured as a possible heir but he is seen as too young and is not a senior cleric.

Since Raisi’s election in 2021, ultra-conservative “Principlists” have held the presidency, the ministries, the majority in parliament, the judiciary and top jobs in the clerical bodies that choose who governs Iran. All decisions are approved by Khamenei.

Under Iran’s constitution an election should take place within 50 days of the president’s death. Competitors will be approved by the unelected 12-member Guardian Council which vets candidates for all key offices. The council is certain to disqualify reformists and candidates who do not enjoy the approval of Khamenei who is determined to maintain Principlist power.


Mokhbar was selected by Khamenei to be first vice-president but is unlikely to stand for the presidency as he is a layman trained in management rather than a senior cleric. Since 1989, Iran’s presidents have been clerics, with the exception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). There have been three reformist presidents – Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammed Khatami and Hassan Rouhani – and three Principlists – Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Raisi.

On the domestic front, the government will continue to contain the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protest movement launched by the death Mahsa Amini (22) while held in custody by morality police for allegedly failing to wear her hijab as mandated by law.

The clerics will also crack down on women who refuse to wear the hijab.

Obtrusive management of the presidential election could reignite protests by young Iranians seeking to escape clerical social diktats.

Iran remains determined to carry on with its nuclear programme by enriching uranium and limiting inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Tehran adopted this policy after Washington’s 2018 abandonment of the 2015 agreement to curb the nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions.

In the region, Iran will maintain its support for Palestine and Hamas, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Yemen’s Houthis, Iraq’s Shia militias, and the Syrian government. Tehran will also follow Raisi’s policy of cultivating Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and normalising relations with Arab states.

Internationally, Iran will remain hostile to US involvement in the Middle East while promoting relations with the Global South, India, China and Russia. Iran will continue to resist US pressure to stop drones to Russia for its war with Ukraine.