Who Would Benefit From Ebrahim Raisi’s Death?

Accidents happen everywhere, but not all accidents are equal. Many hours after initial news broke about an “incident” involving a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s state media has still not confirmed whether he is dead or alive. Various state outlets have published contradictory news—Was Raisi seen on video link after the accident? Was he not? Was the National Security Council meeting? Was it not?—signaling chaos and panic. A source in Tehran close to the presidency told me that Raisi has been confirmed dead, and that the authorities are looking for a way to report the news without causing mayhem. I have not been able to independently confirm this.

Iran doesn’t sound like a country in which presidents die by accident. But it also is a country in which aircraft crash, due to the sorry state of infrastructure in the internationally isolated Islamic Republic. In previous years, at least two cabinet ministers and two leading military commanders have died in similar crashes. Raisi’s chopper, which also carried Iran’s foreign minister and two top regional officials, was passing through an infamously foggy and mountainous area in northwestern Iran. The “incident” might very well have been an accident.

Yet suspicions will inevitably surround the crash. After all, air incidents that killed high political officials in Northern Rhodesia (1961), China (1971), Pakistan (1988), and Poland (2010) are still often subject to speculation. In this case, much as in the others, one question will likely drive the speculation: Who stands to benefit politically from Raisi’s death? Even if the answer to this question does not ultimately tell us why the helicopter crashed, it could shed some light on what will come next in the Islamic Republic.

Raisi ascended to the presidency in 2021, in what appeared to be the least competitive election Iran had held since 1997. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had made sure that all other serious candidates were barred from running. Among those disqualified were not only reformists but also centrist conservatives and even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former hard-line president whom Khamenei came to see as a rival.

Raisi appeared to have been picked precisely because he could never be a serious rival to Khamenei. In 2017, he revealed himself to be utterly uncharismatic in electoral debates against then-President Hassan Rouhani. His time in office since 2021 also speaks not only to his sheer incompetence but also to his political irrelevance. Some call him the Invisible President. During the Women, Life, Freedom movement, which rocked Iran from 2022 to 2023, few protesters bothered to shout slogans against Raisi, because they knew that real power rested elsewhere.

For Khamenei, what mattered was that Raisi could be counted on to toe the regime’s line. Although competition is tight, Raisi may have more blood on his hands than any other living official of the Islamic Republic. Since the 1980s, the Islamic Republic has executed thousands of Iranian dissidents. The judiciary is the arm of the government that carries out this murderous function, and Raisi has held leading positions within it from the very start; he rose to become the head of the judiciary in 2019.

The same qualities that likely made Raisi seem like a safe regime choice for the presidency also made him a primary contender for succeeding Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. According to the Iranian constitution, only a cleric with serious political experience can become head of state. By now, many clerics who fit that description have died or been politically marginalized (many of them did not share Khamenei’s hard-line politics), leaving the field open to Raisi. In turn, many political observers expected that Raisi would be a weak supreme leader, allowing real power to flow elsewhere—to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), for example, or to other power centers around or ancillary to the regime. Who better for such a position than an unimpressive yes-man?

Raisi belongs to a very particular precinct of Iran’s political elite, and in the past few years, others in the political class had come to worry about the ambition of the circles surrounding him. A native of the holy city of Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, Raisi previously held the custodianship of the holy shrine in the city, which is also an economic empire in its own right. He is married to the daughter of Mashhad’s Friday-prayer leader, an arch social conservative. Raisi’s wife, Jamileh Alamolhoda, has played an unusually public role, leading some conservatives from outside the couple’s regional cadre to worry that after Khamenei’s eventual death, a “Mashhad clique” might come to the top of the regime.

Raisi’s apparent passivity has also emboldened challengers among a band of particularly noxious hard-liners, who saw his weak presidency as an opportunity to raise their political profiles at the expense of more established conservatives, such as the parliamentary speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. Some of these ultra hard-liners did well in the parliamentary election earlier this year, which was largely a contest within the hard-line camp. They ran a heated campaign against Qalibaf, who commanded the support of the main pro-regime conservative political parties and many outlets of the IRGC.

For all of these reasons, Raisi’s death would alter the balance of power among factions within the Islamic Republic. According to the Iranian constitution, his vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, would assume the duties of the presidency, and a council consisting of Mokhber, Qalibaf, and the judiciary chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i would have to organize new elections within 50 days.

When I asked an official close to Qalibaf about the political aftermath of the crash, he answered immediately: “Dr. Qalibaf will be the new president.”

He surely would like to be. Qalibaf’s ambition is news to no one; he has run for president several times, starting in 2005. More technocrat than ideologue, Qalibaf was a commander in the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War and will likely command at least some support from within its ranks. His long tenure as mayor of Tehran (2005–2017) was marked by both a degree of competence and quite a bit of corruption. His political enemies have recently highlighted cases of corruption linked to him and his family. An official close to former President Rouhani tells me, “Qalibaf’s problem is that he wants it too much. Everyone knows he has zero principles and will do anything for power.”

If Qalibaf registers to run in a hastily organized presidential election, the Guardian Council might have a hard time rejecting him, given his deep links to power structures in Iran. But would Khamenei be happy with the presidency passing to a technocrat without proper Islamist credentials? Who else would be allowed to run, and could they defeat Qalibaf at the polls, as Ahmadinejad and Rouhani did respectively in 2005 and 2013?

What twists the plot is the fact that some regime officials and former officials who are supportive of Qalibaf also advocate for Khamenei’s son Mojtaba to succeed his father as the supreme leader. Mojtaba Khamenei has long been in the shadows, and little is known about the 54-year-old’s politics or views, but he is widely held to be a serious contender for the office. Could there be a bargain between Mojtaba and Qalibaf that paves a path to power for both of them?

When the Islamic Republic’s founding leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, died, in 1989, Khamenei replaced him after making an unwritten pact with fellow cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who then assumed the presidency. The constitution was swiftly changed to give more powers to the president. Rafsanjani would come to regret the pact, as he was politically sidelined by Khamenei before dying what many in Iran consider a suspicious death, in 2017. Could this cautionary tale make both sides wary?

Many have anticipated a ferocious power struggle in Iran, but most expected it to follow Khamenei’s death. Now we are likely to see at least a dress rehearsal in which various factions will brandish their strength. As for the people of Iran, some have already started celebrating Raisi’s potential demise with fireworks in Tehran. Most Iranians barely feel represented by any faction of the Islamic Republic, and some might use a moment of political crisis to reignite the street protests that have repeatedly beleaguered the regime in the past. The country’s civic movements are exhausted following years of struggle (more than 500 people were killed in the most recent round of protests, from 2022 to 2023). Still, whatever shape the power struggle takes at the top, the people of Iran won’t receive it passively for long.

The Atlantic