Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

The Death of an Iranian Hard-Liner

| May 24, 2024

Ebrahim Raisi Helped Engineer the Islamic Republic's Hawkish Turn—and Whoever Succeeds Him Won't Change Course

The sudden death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in helicopter crash on May 19 marked a momentous day for the Islamic Republic. His presidency ushered in a new era for his country, characterized by increased militarization abroad and growing tumult at home. Not since the 1979 revolution had Iran's political system faced such a fast-paced transformation. Externally, the country surprised the world with its military capabilities and its willingness to deploy them. Internally, Iran grappled with rising secularization, putting society at odds with the government. These shifts meant that the Iran that exists today is very different from the one that existed when Raisi came to power just three years ago.

Without Raisi, it may seem like Iran is headed for a period of great turbulence. Before his ascent, Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, spent 30 years in near-constant conflict with Iran's presidents, sparring over what path the country should take at home and abroad. But Raisi adopted Khamenei's preferred, Middle East–first approach to foreign policy, expanding Iran's regional influence and improving relations with its neighbors, including its rival, Saudi Arabia. He made sure that Iran's presidential bureaucracy synced up with the supreme leader's. He deepened ties with China and Russia and vastly expanded his country's nuclear program. Raisi was so loyal to Khamenei that he was widely viewed as his heir apparent.

Yet it is unlikely that Raisi's death will cause much tumult in Tehran. In fact, it is unlikely to prompt much change at all. Despite popular discontent and an expanding crisis of legitimacy, Iran's powerful ruling class remains steadfast in its commitment to Raisi and Khamenei's strategy. Iranian elites will ensure that the presidency stays in the hands of a loyal establishment conservative. They will keep the country's policies steady. There will still be palace intrigue, as the country gears up for a snap election and ambitious politicians launch their candidacies to succeed Raisi. But Iran's next president will almost certainly be just like its last one, and nationwide grief at Raisi's death will ensure that the winning candidate has a smooth transition....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tabaar, Mohammad.“The Death of an Iranian Hard-Liner.” Foreign Affairs, May 24, 2024.

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