Ahmad Abdel-Rahman
June 22, 2024

What does the death of Iran’s president mean for the Middle East and the world?

There are many unanswered questions about the circumstances surrounding the death of the Iranian President and his foreign minister: Why were the country's two most prominent politicians traveling on the same plane? How were the other two helicopters in the same air convoy able to land safely? Why was the announcement of the deaths delayed so long while the news had been circulating among officials in Tehran hours earlier?

What is next for Iran? The sudden death of President Ibrahim Raisi creates a vacuum at the top of the country's political and theocratic hierarchy during a turbulent period at home and abroad.

The hard line president was supported by the ranks of the Islamic Republic, including Iran's Revolutionary Guards and conservative clerics, making him the likely successor to the elderly and ailing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As a new leadership begins to take shape, questions are being raised about the circumstances surrounding the helicopter crash north of Tabriz that killed the country's president and foreign minister, a prominent politician, Hossein Amir Abdollahian.

Amir Abdullahian played a prominent role internationally, especially when speaking publicly about the Israeli attack on Gaza and the exchange of missiles between Iran and Israel. He was on the side of the Revolutionary Guards and was said to have been close to its former commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020.

Khamenei described what happened as an "unfortunate incident," but allegations quickly emerged that an act of sabotage had occurred in a region accustomed to violence and intrigue.

Has Israel played a role in his death?

As for Israel, which assassinated scientists in the Iranian nuclear programme and military leaders inside the country, it emerged as the usual suspect. However, Israeli officials were quick to deny responsibility for the incident, but accusations and counter-accusations are likely to continue during this tense and turbulent time.

It is noteworthy that the incident occurred after Raisi and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev opened two dams on the border near Azerbaijan. It is known that Israel is an ally of Azerbaijan and a major supplier of weapons to it, which prompted Tehran to express its concern about a possible Israeli presence near its borders.

Some in Israel hope that the deaths will lead to an internal power struggle in Iran, which would divert the latter from its support for the Jewish state's rivals: the "axis of resistance" that includes Hezbollah and Hamas, militias in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. However, it seems unlikely that any major change in Iran's foreign or domestic policy will occur.

Will the upcoming elections lead to change that does not lead to a hard line government? Those who covered the recent elections on the ground heard repeatedly from people, especially young people that they would not vote. They pointed out that they voted for reformist Hassan Rouhani in the previous elections by an overwhelming majority, but his victory did not lead to any meaningful change.

Rouhani had signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal with international powers regarding the country's nuclear programme. However, the opportunity to use this to open Iran to the outside world and liberalise the economy disappeared when Donald Trump, during his presidency, withdrew the US from the agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Many who boycotted the elections expressed deep regret that the new reactionary government reimposed harsh social laws and suppressed protests. Older Iranians remember Raisi's dark past as a judge, when he played a leading role in the killing of thousands of political opponents.

Voters who abstained from voting in 2021 may vote for a reformist this time, but the identity of the opposition candidates is still unclear. It is noteworthy that all those seeking to run are subject to examination by the (un-elected) Guardian Council, which prevents those deemed unsuitable from running.

The path Iran is taking now will have a major impact on the country, the Middle East and beyond. It seems unlikely that the hard line establishment will loosen its grip on power on its own. The confrontation between Iran and its opponents, especially Israel and the US, is expected to continue.

The Iranian President and his delegation were killed in a helicopter crash (the photo is produced by AI by Adobe).