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What to expect next after the sudden death of Iran's president

Iranians gather at Valiasr Square in central Tehran to mourn the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in a helicopter crash.
Atta Kenare
AFP via Getty Images
Iranians gather at Valiasr Square in central Tehran to mourn the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in a helicopter crash.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has died in a helicopter crash, according to state media. Here's how his death might contribute to instability in Iran and the region.

A helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other officials has crashed, leaving no survivors, Iranian state media reported on Monday. The group was traveling in foggy conditions in the mountainous northwest region of the country, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border.

The Iranian cabinet praised Raisi as a "hardworking president" who "made the ultimate sacrifice" for his country – but others outside Iran remember him as a hard-line conservative whose violent crackdown on political and social dissent reaches back decades.

Most recently, Raisi's strict enforcement of the country's "hijab and chastity" law led to the arrest of the young woman Mahsa Amini, whose death in custody sparked nationwide protest in 2022.

"For me, [Raisi] kind of personified Hannah Arendt's line about the banality of evil," Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told NPR. "He wasn't a charismatic guy, and he was ... a hard-liner doing what he was told."

As a protégé of the country's supreme leader, Raisi was seen as a potential successor. But his sudden death has created uncertainty at a time when tensions in the region are already high. Iran and Israel have traded missile and drone strikes, and Iranian proxies continue to wage low-grade war with Israel as the war in Gaza continues.

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Uncertainty in Iran's political succession

Raisi's death will probably not cause instability within Iran, but it does raise questions about Iran's political succession, Sadjadpour says.

While Raisi was the country's top elected official, clerics run the theocratic government. "[Raisi] didn't really oversee Iran's external policies, its nuclear program or the direction of the country," Sadjadpour said. The country is currently ruled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 85 years old.

Now, Ayatollah Khamenei's son Mojtaba Khamenei is the only serious candidate to succeed him as supreme leader – which could raise suspicion.

"Iran has a highly conspiratorial political culture," Sadjadpour said. "I think few people will probably believe this was just an accident." Sadjadpour predicts some will blame Israel, the U.S. or Ayatollah Khamenei.

In the short term, elections will be held to replace Raisi. "Iranian elections are never free and fair," Sadjadpour said. "They have this unique quality of being unfree, unfair and unpredictable."

In the longer term, Sadjadpour predicts Raisi's death will "hasten Iran's transition to a more overt military government, or, frankly, hasten the implosion of a regime which is, in my view, deeply unpopular and unsustainable."

The geopolitical implications

For now, Sadjadpour thinks Iran will turn its attention inward to maintain stability and calm during the presidential transition.

"Iran's long-term policies – in trying to evict America from the Middle East, replace Israel with Palestine and try to defeat the U.S.-led world order – I think they will continue to pursue those policies," he said.

And with an election approaching in the U.S., Sadjadpour believes the next U.S. president will have to prioritize countering Iran's nuclear program and growing influence in the Middle East.

To learn more about Ebrahim Raisi and the implications of his death, tap the play button at the top of the screen to listen to the full episode of Consider This.

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