Analysis: Iran's Leadership Vacuum After President Raisi's Death

Analysis: Iran's Leadership Vacuum After President Raisi's Death

With the demise of Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, the nation braces for an intense internal power struggle, leaving the Iranian people once more silenced and voiceless. Insightful commentary by Frida Ghitis.

Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She shares her opinions weekly on CNN and also contributes to The Washington Post and World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

The tone from state-controlled Iranian media was serious and sorrowful on Sunday night. Search teams were facing challenges in reaching the wreckage of the helicopter that was carrying President Ebrahim Raisi, 63, and other high-ranking officials. The crash occurred in the mountains during thick fog.

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

Occasionally, celebratory fireworks lit up the sky, but they also served as a reminder that Raisi and the regime in control of the Islamic Republic of Iran are increasingly disliked by many people.

Young Iranians on social media celebrated the reported deaths of hardliners Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, and others who have restricted their freedoms under the regime.

In the coming hours, weeks, and months, Iran's power centers will likely engage in intense infighting to secure key positions as the country prepares to elect a new president, the second most powerful position in Iran. This process will also determine the alignments that will ultimately decide the next supreme leader, who will succeed the current leader, Ali Khamenei, and gain absolute authority.

Raisi, a loyal follower of Khamenei, was a top contender for the position. His passing not only leaves the No. 2 spot empty, but also creates chaos in the race for the top position.

In this important struggle for the future leadership of Iran, where the outcome could shape the country for years to come, it is concerning that many Iranians, possibly the majority, will not have a voice or representation for their opinions.

This moment of internal flux comes at a tense time. The Middle East is closely following the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Hamas, supported by Iran, is also backed by other groups linked to Iran like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, all of whom are against Israel's presence. There are concerns that the fighting in Gaza could escalate into a larger regional conflict, with Iran playing a significant role.

TEHRAN, IRAN - APRIL 29: Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi officially welcomed Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid at Saadabad Cultural & Historical Complex in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Sakineh Salimi/Borna News/Aksonline ATPImages/Getty Images)

TEHRAN, IRAN - APRIL 29: Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi officially welcomed Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid at Saadabad Cultural & Historical Complex in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Sakineh Salimi/Borna News/Aksonline ATPImages/Getty Images)

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi warmly greeted Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid at the Saadabad Cultural & Historical Complex in Tehran, Iran. The meeting was held on April 29, as captured in a photo by Sakineh Salimi from Borna News. The leaders came together to discuss important matters concerning both countries.

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Just a few weeks ago, Iran had its first direct clash with Israel. It all started when Israel targeted Iran's embassy complex in Damascus, leading to Iran launching rockets and missiles in retaliation. The world watched nervously as these two regional powers came head to head. Fortunately, the situation calmed down without further escalation.

In addition to the conflict with Israel, Iran plays a significant role in Russia's war against Ukraine. Iran has been supplying the Kremlin with a large number of military drones, which Russia has used to attack Ukrainians. This has brought Iran into a growing alliance of anti-Western nations, joining forces with Russia, China, and North Korea.

Arab countries are closely observing the shifting power dynamics in Tehran, especially Iran's longtime rival, Saudi Arabia. The quest for power within Iran itself will have the most significant impact on the country.

Don't expect big changes in how Iran deals with the West or its own citizens from its internal workings.

Clerics and security forces like the military and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will likely be vying for power, as hardliners in both groups try to come out on top.

The possibility of a more compassionate and peaceful Iran coming into being after the upcoming presidential elections in 50 days is extremely unlikely. Moderates, reformers, liberals, and advocates for democracy have been losing their power within the government slowly but surely.

The Islamic Republic's assertion of having democratic legitimacy in its combination of clerical and elected governance was shattered following the fraudulent 2021 election that led to Raisi becoming the president.

Years ago, Iranian elections, although limited, sometimes resulted in the election of a reformer. However, things have changed. In 2017, the uncharismatic Raisi ran for office and lost. In 2021, the regime disqualified the majority of the candidates, leaving only Raisi in a non-competitive race. This ensured that Khamenei's preferred candidate would win.

In this important battle for the future leadership of Iran, millions of Iranians, possibly the majority, will not have a voice or representation for their views.

Frida Ghitis

Even so, Iranians sent an electoral message. He won, but most voters spoiled their ballots or stayed home, with the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

Raisi was well-known for his involvement in sending thousands of political prisoners to their deaths in mass executions during the early days of the revolution. He was part of the four-member "death commissions" in 1988 that forced prisoners to clear minefields for the Army. Those who refused were executed, as reported by Amnesty International.

Following the contested 2009 election, where a reformist candidate believed to have won was denied victory by the regime, Raisi played a key role in the violent crackdown against protesters in the Green Movement.

He later became the head of the judiciary, where he implemented stricter restrictions and harshly suppressed the 2019 pro-democracy protests against the government.

As a result of his involvement in the government's oppressive actions at home and abroad, the US imposed sanctions on him.

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He became president in 2021 after gaining the support of the supreme leader, thanks to his loyalty and strict enforcement of control. The following year, a widespread protest erupted in the country following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by religious police for not wearing a sufficiently modest head cover.

Women protested against the mandatory hijab, demanding "Women, Life, Freedom." Human rights organizations criticized Raisi for overseeing a crackdown on peaceful protests, resulting in tens of thousands of arrests and hundreds of arbitrary executions.

Now that Raisi has passed away, it is likely that another hardliner will take his place.

For Iranians who were happy about his death, feeling excluded from decisions about their country's future, the only comfort is knowing that no government lasts forever. Their revolution may have been delayed, but it's not over yet.

Editor's P/S:

The article provides a comprehensive overview of the current political turmoil in Iran following the reported death of President Ebrahim Raisi. It highlights the intense power struggles within the country's ruling elite as they jockey for positions ahead of the upcoming presidential election. The author, Frida Ghitis, expresses concern over the lack of representation and voice for the majority of Iranians, who have been subjected to oppressive measures and denied basic freedoms under Raisi's regime.

The article also touches upon Iran's role in regional conflicts, including its support for Hamas in Gaza and its alliance with Russia in the war against Ukraine. It acknowledges the growing influence of hardline clerics and security forces in Iranian politics, as well as the diminishing power of moderates and reformers. The author concludes that while Raisi's passing may create chaos in the race for the presidency, it is unlikely to bring about significant changes in Iran's policies or its treatment of its citizens.