Iran Has a New President. Will We Have Stability in the Middle East?

Middle East Conflicts - July 8, 2024

The sudden death of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi in a bizzare helicopter crash in a remote part of the country has greatly muddied the waters in the Middle East. Two months ago, international relations experts were talking of “unpredictable developments” of the fateful crash in the already tense situation in the region. Some warned that the demise of Raisi – who, in three years in office, established ultra-conservatism in Iranian society and set an even tougher foreign policy line – would further radicalize the political discourse in Tehran against the US and Israel as Iran enters the fraught process of negotiations between the various factions ahead of early elections to nominate a new president. 

Although the official causes of the downing of the presidential helicopter have not been made public, several political and media channels have reported that the main culprit is the US. This is not only because the helicopter was American-made, but also because it was old and worn out, like the entire Iranian fleet, which cannot be renewed due to Western sanctions. On the other hand, according to foreign policy analysts, the president’s death also raised the possibility of new protests in the context of the power vacuum in Tehran. Images of Iranian women dancing to the news of the “Butcher of Tehran” circulated on social media alongside messages of condolences from heads of state around the world.

Former Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who died on the 19th of May, was seen as a possible successor to Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Raisi was notable for his bloody suppression of some of the largest protests in the country’s history and for his lobbying in nuclear talks with world powers, seeking major exemptions from US sanctions in return for modest restrictions on his country’s use of the increasingly advanced technology. Ebrahim Raisi’s position has also been encouraged by the chaotic US military withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan, as well as swings in White House policy positions.

Former President Raisi has heightened tensions with the US

According to Foreign Policy, in his three years in office, Raisi accelerated uranium enrichment and made Iran an even clearer antagonist to the US. That’s after his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, had sought a loosening of the country’s relations with the West, particularly over Iran’s nuclear policy. At the same time, under Raisi’s leadership, Iran backed Russia in its war against Ukraine with massive exports of Shahed drones and artillery, and stepped up military action against Israel after the October 2023 Hamas attack on that country, launching massive drone and rocket attacks against Israel just a month before his death.

Domestically, only one year into his term, Raisi has imposed stricter enforcement of Iran’s “hijab and chastity law”. The arrest of the young Iranian Kurdish-born Ahsa Amini by riot police for violating these restrictions on women and her death in prison opened a long string of protests, which proved the most significant challenge to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Hundreds of people were killed then according to human rights organizations, and many women who had buried family members at the time have now posted videos on social media of themselves drinking and dancing to the death of the “Butcher of Tehran”.

International political pundits have estimated that regardless of who replaces Raisi, the strategy that the former president pursued is unlikely to change, having been solidified among the upper echelons of Iran’s political and clerical leadership. What is certain is that from the short list of possible successors to Khamenei, the only one mentioned was his boss Mojtaba. The Revolutionary Guards have tried to use the incident to further strengthen their position at the top of the Iranian state, and there is even the possibility that the tragedy could leave a small opening for new protest movements.

The messages of the presidential candidates, populism in Islamist variant 

The death of Ebrahim Raisi has upset a fragile balance of power within the theocratic regime in Tehran, according to Romanian international relations professor Valentin Naumescu, a former secretary of state in the foreign ministry in Bucharest. Valentin Naumescu pointed out that the helicopter crash in which Raisi died also killed Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who coordinated Iran’s aggressive foreign policy, was also a hardliner and close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the feared paramilitary group through which the Ayatollahs control the country with an iron fist. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian can be credited with negotiating a successful reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and keeping the rather tense relationship with Pakistan on an even keel. The Romanian international relations expert also explained that a new president should be appointed within 50 days of the death of the previous one, a very short time in which the Tehran power camps should negotiate who will succeed Raisi. According to the quoted source, this is likely to further radicalize Iran’s position abroad.

“It is not the procedure that is unclear, but the consequences triggered inside the authoritarian regime in Tehran by this disruptive event. There will therefore follow an interim executive leadership and a possible intense internal competition between the existing factions over the next 50 days, each trying to win internal sympathy and trust by a discourse as intransigent as possible against Israel and the United States (populism in its Islamist variant). The Iranian theocracy usually operated on the basis of planning, crystallized decisions and appointments long before they were formally wrapped up in “popular elections”. This time, I don’t think that the regime has ready the solution for a succession discussed and agreed by all factions, moderate or radical,” the Romanian expert wrote on his Facebook page.

The authorities in Tehran have not yet officially announced the cause of the helicopter crash in which nine people, including the president and the foreign minister, were killed. But the Kremlin has identified the culprit: The United States, which, through sanctions imposed on Tehran, has prevented the Iranian air fleet from equipping.

“The Americans do not recognize this, but the fact is that other countries against which the US has announced sanctions are not receiving spare parts for American equipment, including aviation”(…)

“We are talking about deliberately causing harm to ordinary citizens who use these vehicles, and when spare parts are not provided, this is directly related to the decrease in the level of safety,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

This was confirmed by pictures of the helicopter wreckage broadcast by Iranian media from the crash site, showing a Bell 212 helicopter crashing into the mountains. According to the Financial Times, the real “culprit” is the outdated air fleet, marred by years of wear and tear, which is, in fact, “a metaphor for the entire regime in Tehran”.

Blocked for years by Western sanctions, Iran has been unable to renew its fleet and has had no access to spare parts and maintenance contracts.

“Iran’s air fleet is a metaphor for the entire regime,” said Ali Ansari, founder of the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews.

 “It’s old, it shouldn’t be able to keep flying, and yet it does – until it doesn’t,” he told the Financial Times. 

A reformist and an ultra-conservative in Iran’s presidential runoff

Polls opened in Iran on the 5th of July for the second round of presidential elections. In the second round of these elections, reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian and ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili, who came second in the first round, faced off in the race to succeed Ebrahim Raissi.  Across Iran, from the Caspian Sea in the north to the Gulf in the south, some 61 million voters turned out in 58,638 polling stations.  As expected, the polls were closely watched abroad as Iran is at the center of several geopolitical crises, from the war in Gaza to the nuclear dossier, in which Tehran is at odds with Western countries, especially the US. Against a backdrop of public discontent, particularly about the state of the economy, which has been hit hard by sanctions, the elections to replace Ebrahim Raissi were hastily organized.  The turnout in the first round, held a week ago, was 39.92% of the 61 million voters. This represents the lowest turnout in Iran in 45 years, a far cry from the around 80% turnout in presidential elections in the late 20th century. The opposition in Iran, as well as in the diaspora, have urged citizens to boycott the poll, saying the conservative and reformist camps are two sides of the same coin.

“It is completely false to believe that those who did not vote in the first round are against the system,” said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who urged voters to go to the polls on Wednesday.

Who is Iran’s new president?

In the first round of voting on the 28th of June, four candidates were declared eligible to take part in the election to replace Ebrahim Raissi and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council rejected two others.  Reformist MP Masoud Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old surgeon, came in first with 42.4% of the vote, compared to 38.6% for Saeed Jalili, the runner-up. Pezeshkian has affirmed his loyalty to the Islamic republic. He called for a more open Iran in its relations with the West and advocated a “constructive relationship” with Washington and European countries to “bring Iran out of its isolation”. Masoud Pezeshkian has had the support of former presidents Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, and Hassan Rouhani, a moderate.

Masoud Pezeshkian’s opponent in the second round was ultra-conservative Saeed Jalili, 58.  Jalili is known for his inflexible stance against Western powers. He was backed by Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, the conservative speaker of parliament, who came third with 13.8% of the vote in the first round. As a former negotiator on the nuclear program, Jalili has maintained his intransigent stance towards the West, arguing that Tehran does not need the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, signed in 2015 with the US and other world powers. Said Jalili strongly denounced the deal, which imposed restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear activity in exchange for an easing of sanctions, saying it “violated Tehran’s red lines” by accepting “unusual inspections” at Iranian nuclear sites. 

Iran’s new president elected on the 5th of July is Masoud Pezeshkian who defeated his conservative rival Saeed Jalili. Of the 30 million votes cast, Pezeshkian received 53.3% while Saeed Jalili garnered 44.3%. 

“Ballot counting has been completed and candidates have been informed about the result. Pezeshkian has a lead of about three million votes over his opponent Saeed Jalili, a hardliner,” said the sources, who requested anonymity. 

The election of Masoud Pezeshkian will have little impact on the Islamic republic’s policies. The new president will be closely involved in selecting the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 85-year-old supreme leader, who makes all decisions on the most important issues of state. At the same time, Iran’s president has limited powers: he is tasked with carrying out the government’s broad policy guidelines laid down by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.