Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi during a visit

Raisi’s Death Exposes Iran's Crisis of Legitimacy Once Again

Monday, 05/20/2024

The news of Raisi’s helicopter crash and death has caused speculation about the question of presidential succession and its implications for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Even before it became clear that President Ebrahim Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, had already assured the public that they should have no fear of any disruptions in the administration of the state.

To those unacquainted with the intrigues and intricacies of the Iranian political system, such debates may come across as illustrious of a vibrant political system where rival factions vie for power. The plentiful memes and jokes about Raisi’s death by many Iranians inside and outside Iranian is most revealing of the dire legitimacy crisis that has afflicted the regime.

Per articles, 60, 113, and 114-142 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (amended in 1989), the Iranian president technically holds “the second most powerful” office after the Supreme Leader. The president also chairs the State’s National Security Council (176) and is an ex-officio member of the Expediency (Exigency) Council (article 177).

However, the importance of the office of the president should not be exaggerated. As detailed in a seminal survey of the Iranian presidency (The Quest for Authority in Iran: A History of The Presidency from Revolution to Rouhani) by St Andrews University’s Siavush Ranjbar-Daemi, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s presidents have traditionally and constitutionally served at the pleasure of the Supreme Leader and that of Parliament (the Majles), which itself has historically deferred to “the Sultanistic Edicts” (Ahkam-i Sultani) of the Supreme Leader.

The undisputed paramount powers of the state reside in the office of the Supreme Leader, as detailed under article 108. The Supreme Leader enjoys plenipotentiary powers, both spiritual and temporal, over all branches of government (the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary), that are substantially comparable to those of the popes of Rome and Muslim Caliphs of the Middle Ages. Indeed, Supreme Leader Khamenei has ensured that his all too powerful station progressively eclipsed the office of the president and reduced it to that of chief administrator of the state.

Yet, what set Raisi apart from his predecessors, including Khamenei, who himself held the office of the president from 1981 until the death of Khomeini in 1989, is that he epitomized the ideal “executive servant” to the Supreme Leader. His political profile and stature set him apart from all his predecessors.

Since he came Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei oversaw the constitutional amendments that eliminated the office of the prime minister, turned the president into a chief executive mandarin, and enshrined “the preponderant” powers of the Supreme Leader into the letter of the constitution. From 1989 to 2021, all presidents of the Islamic Republic of various reformist, moderate, and ultraconservative factions (Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani) squabbled, openly or privately, with Khamenei, and sought to assert their office as “directly elected officials”, but to no avail.

Raisi was an alumni of the faith-based Shia secondary school: the Haqqani School. He along with many of his classmates became revolutionary judges, members of the assembly of experts (responsible for the appointment and dismissal of the supreme leader), appointed representatives of the supreme leader in the praetorian IRGC and the security-intelligence apparatus of the Islamic Republic over the past forty years. They are a most zealous cohort of revolutionary clerics with unequivocal allegiance to the supreme leader. Raisi’s presidency afforded Khamenei the trophy subservient servant he had always wished for.

He rose through the ranks in the Judiciary from a town prosecutor to a provincial prosecutor. In 1988. Raisi presided over the summary secret retrials of thousands of political prisoners who were already imprisoned in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic. In collaboration with zealous prosecutors like Hamid Nouri, Raisi was the hanging judge who sent thousands of political prisoners to the gallows.

Raisi’s curriculum vitae was one of a careerist revolutionary cleric. After Khomeini’s death, Raisi became the Chief Prosecutor for Tehran. Khamenei saw in Raisi a protégé whom he could reward for his loyalty, and thus appointed him head of the State General Inspectorate in 1994. Between 2004 to 2014, Raisi served as the Deputy of the Chief Justice of the State (the Judiciary Chief’s deputy). In 2014-2015, he served as the State’s Attorney General. Between 2015 and 2019, Raisi served as the Chief Trustee of Astan-e Quds, the wealthiest multibillion dollar, religious trust in Iran.

In 2016, Raisi was elected as a member of the Assembly of Experts, and since 2023 he has been the deputy speaker of the Experts Assembly. In 2019, Khamenei appointed Raisi as Judiciary Chief. He proved his loyalty to Khamenei by orchestrating “anti-corruption” trials of former high-ranking judiciary officials, and even though secondary and tertiary officials were prosecuted, the true target of the trials were the powerful Larijani brothers, who had at some point held the Speakership of the parliament as well as the office of the Judiciary Chief.

Finally, in 2021, Raisi was elected president with the helping hand of Khamenei’s appointed Guardian Council. The Guardian Council disqualified many “otherwise qualified” candidates from running, paving the way for Raisi to become president in a low-turnout election which was boycotted by most Iranians.

In view of Raisi’s membership of the Haqqani revolutionary clerics’ circle, and his overtures to the IRGC top brass at the time he was at the helm of the judiciary, his election to presidency in 2021 was an auspicious confirmation to many that he indeed was Khamenei’s heir apparent. Conversely, and against the backdrop of some clerical speculations and objections, some have argued that Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, is his heir apparent. In a regime like that of Iran’s, a supreme leader’s legitimacy largely hinges on the power of the military and the security and intelligence apparatus as well as the ruling ideological elite.

Currently, the IRGC (praetorian guard of the regime) controls much of the country’s economic infrastructure as well as large swathes of the private sector and has a strong grip over the Iranian armed proxies in the region. Mojtaba is revered by the security and intelligence establishment, the IRGC top brass, and many deputies in the Assembly of Experts, and has been chiefly in charge of running the supremely powerful “Office of the Supreme Leader” for his father for almost two decades. Such debates about succession now that Raisi is dead are moot. As to the fate of the presidency, article 131 of the constitution stipulates that:

In case of death, dismissal, resignation, absence, or illness lasting longer than two months of the President, or when his term in office has ended and a new president has not been elected due to some impediments, or similar other circumstances, his first deputy shall assume, with the approval of the Leader, the powers, and functions of the President. The Council, consisting of the Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, head of the judicial power, and the first deputy of the President, is obliged to arrange for a new President to be elected within a maximum period of fifty days. In case of death of the first deputy to the President, or other matters which prevent him to perform his duties, or when the President does not have a first deputy, the Leader shall appoint another person in his place.

What makes the present situation most dire is that if Khamenei dies before a new president has been elected, the country may potentially plunge into nationwide unrest. If the 2022-2023 nationwide “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising is any guide, and in view of Iran’s ongoing decrepit economic situation that has pushed over sixty percent of Iranians into poverty, the regime already grapples with an endemic crisis of legitimacy. Thus, it is Khamenei’s demise that can potentially trigger a manifold crisis.

In sum, the prime directive, and the categorical imperative, that guides the members of the Assembly of Experts, and the entire ruling echelon of the Islamic Republic is: “the Survival of the Regime.” Under a scenario that the regime is at once devoid of both the supreme leader and the president, the Assembly of Experts may indeed swiftly elect Seyyed Mojtaba Khamenei who enjoys the unquestionable loyalty of the IRGC top brass and the security and intelligence establishment. If so, Seyyed Mojtaba Khamenei’s leadership shall usher in an era of theocratic dynasty in the Islamic Republic following the same model of early medieval Shia imamate dynastic succession.

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