Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iran’s Raisi, Abdollahian’s Death: Domestic and International Fallout

The deaths of Raisi and Abdollahian, in particular, signify substantial losses for Iranian governance and diplomacy.

Iran’s Raisi Abdollahian’s Death
Iranians gather at Valiasr Square in central Tehran to mourn the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and seven others in a helicopter crash. ATTA KENARE / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

On the morning of April 20, 2024, Iranian media confirmed the death of all passengers in the helicopter crash that occurred in the northwest of the country, near the border with Azerbaijan.

The helicopter was carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. Among the passengers of the doomed helicopter were also two other prominent figures: the governor of East Azerbaijan, Malek Rahmati, and the Imam of Friday prayers in Tabriz, Ali Al Hashem.

The Priority of Controlling Governance and Authority Affairs

Following the crash and before the helicopter wreckage was found, revealing the fate of the Iranian officials, it became clear that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was determined to maintain control over governance and authority internally. While rescue teams searched for the stricken helicopter throughout the night, Khamenei delivered a speech to reassure Iranians, urging them “not to worry” and emphasizing that “there will be no disruption to the country’s work.”

Once the bodies of the Iranian official delegation were found, Khamenei assigned the responsibility of managing the executive authority to the First Vice President of the Republic of Iran Mohammad Mokhber. Meanwhile, Iran’s Council of Ministers quickly transferred the duties of the foreign minister to Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri. This swift action ensured that the void left by the accident was filled promptly, minimizing disruption to the government’s work, with new presidential elections scheduled for June 28, 2024.

There are significant reasons for the Iranian regime to fear any disruption in the functioning of government institutions at this particular stage. The incident occurred less than three months after parliamentary elections, which saw very low voter turnout, especially in the capital, Tehran. This has raised serious and dangerous questions from the opposition, which has begun to doubt the legitimacy of the regime and its representation of younger demographics.

Raisi’s term witnessed significant protests in the last quarter of 2022, which some saw as a widening “gap” between the regime and the populace. In the months leading up to the helicopter crash, economic pressures, particularly inflation and low wages, had once again mobilized the public against the government. This raised concerns among regime supporters that popular protests might resurface, driven by economic and social grievances capable of uniting broad segments of the Iranian population.

In response, the regime, led by Khamenei, prioritized quickly managing the incident’s aftermath to prevent unrest that could destabilize the government. This explains the regime’s emphatic emphasis on unity and the stability of state institutions following the incident. In addition, the deployment of the Revolutionary Guard around government centers and key public institutions in Tehran immediately after news of the helicopter crash highlights this priority.

The Iranian regime is marked by unique characteristics, particularly regarding the executive authority’s limited scope and the power of elected constitutional institutions.

Many responsibilities related to security, defense, economy and foreign policy remain under the control of the Revolutionary Guard, which reports directly to the supreme leader and is not accountable to other constitutional bodies. This arrangement allows the supreme leader to control many aspects of public life, independent of the identity of elected officials.

Losses in Governance and Regional Repercussions

Despite the regime swiftly getting governance affairs under control in less than 24 hours, it is evident that during the incident the ruling conservative camp lost key figures who played important roles. Furthermore, this event will likely impact regional issues involving Iranian foreign policy.

Ibrahim Raisi, the eighth president of the Islamic Republic, had managed to control the internal balances in state institutions since his term began in 2021, despite the diversity and multiplicity of currents within the conservative camp. Raisi won the last presidential election with 62 per cent of the vote after the Guardian Council paved the way for him by disqualifying all potential competitors.

The most significant loss for the Iranian regime and the conservative camp as a result of the incident was the death of Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. Abdollahian was responsible for many achievements in Iranian diplomacy over the past three years, notably the normalization of Iran’s relations with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Using the contacts and expertise he had developed while working in the Gulf Department of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he successfully pushed these diplomatic endeavors.

Because Abdollahian was seen as one of the diplomatic officials closest to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, he had more direct access to the Arab militants group allied with the Guard in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Abdollahian gained a strong regional presence as a result of this link, and since the start of the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, he made multiple visits to Arab nations.

Despite his clear affiliation with the conservative camp in Iran, Abdollahian maintained a pragmatic and flexible policy regarding negotiations with the United States. This approach allowed Iranian diplomacy in 2023 to conclude a deal with Washington to exchange prisoners and release part of the Iranian funds detained by sanctions. Abdollahian was expected to pursue further negotiations to revive the nuclear agreement if U.S. President Joe Biden won a new term in the upcoming U.S. elections.

The departure of Abdollahian is anticipated to have an effect on a few of the regional problems Iran is facing, especially its connections with the Arab nations and groups in the Middle East. Finding someone with Abdollahian’s abilities, connections, and background in managing matters in the Arab world will be necessary for the Iranian leadership.

In addition, the conservative camp lost Muhammad Ali Al Hashem, who served as the Imam of Friday prayers in the Tabriz Mosque and Khamenei’s personal representative in East Azerbaijan Province before his death. Al Hashem had played significant cultural and political roles, including heading the Political Awareness Organization in the Iranian Army, being a member of the Central Council of the Mujahideen Clergy Complex in Tehran, and working in the Azerbaijan office in the Expediency Discernment Council.

Malek Rahmati’s functions were mostly financial. Before taking on the role of governor of East Azerbaijan Province this year, he was named head of the Iranian Privatization Organization last year. Rahmati was one of the first state governors in history to be born within the younger generation following the revolution. His downfall signifies the loss of a young leader for whom the government had high hopes of serving as an exemplar to the upcoming generation of state officials.

Implications for Khamenei’s Succession

Raisi was considered one of the most prominent figures poised to succeed Khamenei as Iran’s supreme leader. Many analysts have suggested that the Guardian Council intentionally excluded all serious contenders in the 2021 presidential elections to ensure Raisi’s victory, positioning him for the supreme leader role after Khamenei. A significant segment of conservatives viewed Raisi as an ideal candidate due to his extreme loyalty to the values of the revolution and his minimum required level of popularity to maintain the regime’s legitimacy.

Another widely discussed candidate for the position is none other than Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Raisi’s absence is expected to bolster Mojtaba’s prospects, who has held the title of “ayatollah” since August 2022 – a necessary credential for becoming the supreme leader. Mojtaba has strengthened his control over significant parts of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard since 2009, particularly the intelligence service, which he helped establish.

Mojtaba’s potential ascension might receive the Revolutionary Guards’ support and blessing. However, his limited popularity compared to Raisi could be problematic. Unlike Raisi, Mojtaba is seen as a figure from the shadowy security and intelligence circles, perceived as obtaining his position through inheritance and kinship, which enabled him to penetrate the state apparatus.

However, it is too soon to say with certainty who will succeed Khamenei as supreme leader. New faces will be able to surface in the upcoming years thanks to the active movements within the system that still have mechanisms in place to develop and nurture prospects. For now, in the absence of a clear alternative, Raisi’s absence leaves Mojtaba Khamenei as the primary candidate for the position.

The incident has sparked numerous conspiracy theories, with some speculating it may have been a result of a foreign hostile act, especially since the helicopter was returning from an official visit to Azerbaijan, a country known for its deep ties with Israel. Others suggested it was a settling of scores within the regime itself, hinting at competition over Iran’s future leadership.

However, these theories remain speculative without concrete evidence. The official narrative maintains that the incident was an accident, with no indications supporting an alternative theory. While the idea of intentional assassination remains a possibility, there are no confirmed facts to substantiate that thus far. Iran’s aged fleet and inadequate maintenance have contributed to a history of frequent helicopter mishaps, which lends credence to the accident narrative.

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