Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Iran’s Mehr News Service reported Monday morning Tehran time that President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian died Sunday in a helicopter crash in a remote area of Iran. They had been at the border with the neighboring country of Azerbaijan to inaugurate a dam and were going to Tabriz when the crash occurred because of bad weather. Iran has two provinces also named Azerbaijan. The region was bifurcated in the early nineteenth century when the Russian Empire conquered half of Iran’s Azerbaijan and made it a Russian colony that became independent in 1991. The helicopter crashed in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

Raisi was elected president in the summer of 2021. The big features of his presidency in my view have been:

1. He declined to negotiate a return to the 2015 nuclear deal by the Biden administration. The deal had constrained Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program, but Trump tore it up in 2018 and put “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran even though it had abided by the deal. Biden seemed inclined to reenter the treaty in 2021, but wasn’t enthusiastic about it and Raisi’s election was the nail in the coffin.

2. He has cultivated close relations with Russia and China to sidestep the effect of US sanctions on selling Iranian petroleum.

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3. He presided over the crushing of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement of Iran’s young women in 2022, which protested mandatory veiling and other patriarchal and police repression. As the perpetrator of a massive prison massacre, he knew his way around shooting and executing protesters.

4. He helped negotiate a possible natural gas pipeline with Pakistan, over the objections of the US, which wants to isolate Iran and crash its economy. Pakistan, however, is energy poor and has not exploited its vast sun and wind power, and so is tempted by Iranian gas.

5. He continued his predecessor’s policies of cultivating pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza. Although he supported Hamas, Hamas did not tell him that it was planning the October 7 attack.

6. His response to the Gaza War (though Khamenei was the main policy maker here) was to allow the pro-Iran militias to take symbolic actions like hitting bases with US troops or firing rockets into Israel, but to restrain them from igniting a full scale war.

7. He, Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps orchestrated the large-scale missile and rocket reprisal toward Israel after the government of Benjamin Netanyahu struck the Iranian consulate in Damascus and killed high ranking Iranian officers. However, the Iranian response was announced in plenty of time for the US to shoot down all but a couple of the incoming missiles, avoiding a huge explosion in Israel that might have sparked a war. He was the only Iranian president ever to have struck Israel directly from Iran.

Raisi, known as a far right hawk and implicated in a 1988 prison massacre, was not all that powerful. Presidents in Iran are more like American vice presidents, subordinate to the clerical “August Leader” (rahbar-e mo`azzam), which I maintain is a more accurate translation than “supreme leader,” which sounds like something out of a comic book. In the Iranian system, there are four branches of government — the legislature, the judiciary, the executive, and the clerical Guardian-Jurisprudent. All the other branches of government are subordinated to the theocratic Guardian.

In the thought of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, people in a society who do not have high-powered seminary training are sort of like minor orphans who need a guardian to be appointed over them. The clerical Guardian makes sure that the people do not use their voting power for the parliament and the president to take the country in an ungodly direction. Since Khomeini’s death in 1989, the role of the top cleric has been filled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 85, an old-time revolutionary against the monarchist, pro-American government of Iran’s last king or shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi.

Maybe an analogy for Americans would be the role that Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito has taken on, of overruling Americans — implicitly on grounds of Christian doctrine and canon law — on ungodly activity such as abortion.

Raisi was being groomed to succeed Khamenei as the theocratic Guardian.

Khamenei’s son Mojtaba was the other leading contender to succeed him. However, the selection of the August Leader is the prerogative of the clerical Assembly of Experts, which has 88 members.

The Assembly of Experts in turn is chosen by the Guardianship Council.

Raisi, known as a far right hawk and implicated in a 1988 prison massacre, was not all that powerful.

The Guardianship Council is 12-man body that can strike down parliamentary legislation and vet candidates for office. Half of the Guardianship Council members are appointed by the August Leader and the other half are approved by the lay, elected parliament. So Khamenei has a heavy indirect influence on the Assembly of Experts, though it is not clear whether they would just roll over and appoint his son to succeed him. Mojtaba does not have the stature as a cleric that is usually thought necessary for such a role.

Afshon Ostovar points out that Khamenei championed and built up the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is a paramilitary alongside the conventional Iranian military. The best analogy I can think of for the IRGC for Americans is the National Guard, which isn’t identical to the US Army, but which was deployed in Iraq, for instance. It isn’t a very good analogy.

Ostovar, who wrote the book on the subject of the Revolutionary Guards points out that a new clerical Guardian coming to power will be an inflection point for the IRGC. A new clerical Leader could try to reduce the power of the paramilitary, or he could attempt to ensconce it as a military junta of sorts — though still subordinate to the clerical rulers.

There are supposed to be elections within two months for a new president. There will be a lot of jockeying for power during these two months, a night of long knives. As long as Khamenei is alive, Raisi’s successor will be subordinate to the August Leader. But the Iranian system is not fixed in stone, and the republic could see major changes in the next five to ten years, so that the new president could become a pivotal figure. The tendency of the regime in recent years has been to attempt to exclude centrists from running or even serving on the Assembly of Experts, in a coup of the hardliners. The presidential election will tell us whether this slow motion coup is still in progress.

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