by Lorenzo Forlani

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in northern Iran, near the border with Azerbaijan, is still shrouded in mystery. Conspiracy theories have pointed to the fact that Raisi’s helicopter took off from Azerbaijan, which is known to have close intelligence and military ties with Israel, at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and Israel. However, a more prosaic explanation for the incident is that Raisi was flying in awful weather conditions in an old Bell 212 helicopter that had probably not been properly maintained – partly because of the sanctions. In any case, Mohammad Baqeri, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces has tasked Gen. Ali Abdollahi, deputy Chief of Staff of Armed Forces, to lead a team investigating the causes of the incident.

There are two main reasons why the deaths of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian are politically significant, particularly for Iran’s domestic politics. The first is that, according to numerous sources, Ebrahim Raisi was Ali Khamenei’s favourite choice to succeed him as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, even more so than his son Mojtaba Khamenei.

The second, closely related to the first but with broader implications, is that of Iran’s last five presidents, Raisi has arguably, if not definitely, been the most aligned with the Supreme Leader’s foreign and domestic views since he took office in 1989 after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. As Iran’s former nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian has pointed out, the reformist former president Mohammad Khatami, the pragmatists Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rouhani, and even the populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all had varying degrees of disagreement or even tension with Khamenei during their terms, whether it’s over foreign or domestic issues. Ebrahim Raisi, on the other hand, has fully represented and promoted the positions of the Rahbar, thus signalling the completion of an important shift in the Iranian political arena.

In fact, the decline of the reformist camp led by former president Mohammad Khatami began in 2002, when his overtures to the US – by sharing intelligence on Taliban hideouts through General Qassem Soleimani and by opening Iranian airspace for American strikes against them – were answered harshly by G.W. Bush jr, who in his annual State of the Union address included Iran in the infamous ‘axis of evil’. The decline of the reformists has been relentless over the past 20 years, reaching a dramatic climax in the disputed 2009 elections with the arrest of their leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karroubi. 

Khatami’s failure to convince the Supreme Leader to trust the US and his ability to enter into dialogue with them set in motion an irreversible process that over the years has led to the disqualification and general marginalisation of the reformists. Even Hassan Rouhani, who wasn’t elected in 2014 as a reformist but as a centrist with pragmatic views (although he also attracted the votes of reformist voters), has seen a decline in the eyes of the Rahbar under similar circumstances: the withdrawal of the US from a nuclear deal that was barely reached after years of negotiations and, more importantly, after years of Rouhani’s lobbying for renewed trust (for him and the US, again) by Khamenei.

The gradual disappearance of the reformist camp, followed by the narrowing of any real space in the centre, has produced a new, disastrous reality, which is also intertwined with the generational change among Iran’s conservatives: the political division is no longer between reformists or ‘moderates’ VS principalists (conservatives) or ultra-principalists, but has become entirely endogenous to the principalist camp. Not only is the political arena and the Majles (parliament) now dominated by this broad front, but the latter is essentially characterised by a growing rift between moderate conservatives and hardline conservatives, with further nuances within these two broad groups.

This will be fully reflected in the early presidential elections that the newly appointed Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, along with Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and Chief Justice Gholamhossein Mohsen-Ejei, must call within 50 days, according to Article 131 of the Iranian Constitution. Who will succeed Ebrahim Raisi for the next four years?

Mohammad Qalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran, has stood for election several times and always lost. He was Raisi’s main opponent in the last election, and Raisi’s circle also tried to prevent his election as Majles speaker in the months that followed. This time, however, he can hope to attract the votes of opponents of Saeed Jalili, a staunch opponent of compromise with the US, a radical, former Iranian negotiator under Ahmadinejad, and a two-time candidate. Iranian commentators see Jalili as the favourite candidate of Raisi’s supporters.

Ali Larijani, a member of a very well-known Iranian political family, basically a conservative with more liberal views on foreign policy issues and a supporter of the nuclear deal, was disqualified by the Guardian Council in the last 2021 elections, but many believe he would have some chances of being admitted this time. His figure also symbolises the shift mentioned above in the political arena: twenty years ago, Larijani would have been a considerate, almost hardline, opponent of the broad reformist camp. Now he is a ‘moderate’.

In addition to a few outsiders, such as the mayor of Tehran, Alireza Zakani, or the former head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkani, there are two members of an emerging post-revolutionary generation, both born after 1979. The first is Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, born in 1982 (the youngest member of the Majles), a former intelligence officer who headed the communications ministry under Rouhani (the first minister ever born after the revolution), lost a brother in the Iran-Iraq war and, despite being sanctioned by the US, was remarkably described by the political analyst Ruhollah Faghighi as the ‘Iranian Macron’.

The second is undoubtedly Mehrdad Bazrpash: born in 1980, during the Ahmadinejad years, in his early 20s, head of the Basij organisation at Sharif University in Tehran, then CEO of two major car manufacturers – Khodro and Saipa – and former owner of the Vatan e-emrooz newspaper, he is now minister of roads and urban development in the current government and is known to be extremely ambitious.

On the cover photo, the late Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and the supreme leader Ali Khamenei on a poster in Iran’s capital, Tehran ©Sergey-73/