Iran after Raisi: Elections Under the Revolutionary Guard’s Watch
Renzo Guolo 24 May 2024

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, almost certainly the designated heir of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has exposed the contradictions at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Said contradictions lie both in the country’s institutional denomination – a true political oxymoron – and in its constitutional architecture, formed in 1979 when the revolution was still developing, and not yet wholly wedded to its Islamist matrix.

Notably, the Iranian government features both democratically elected offices – including mayors, members of parliament, and the president – and unelected but divinely sanctioned ones. Only the office of Rahbar, or Supreme Leader, is both elected and divinely sanctioned: in the absence of an undisputed charismatic figure with certain religious and political qualities, the Supreme Leader is “chosen” by the Assembly of Experts among its 88 members.

The Guardian Council constitutes another divinely sanctioned branch of the Iranian government. It reviews new legislation to ensure its compatibility with Islamic principles, and it selects candidates for the various offices on the basis of their “loyalty to the system.” Of its 12 members, six are religious jurists selected by the Supreme Leader and six are non-religious jurists selected by parliament from a range of candidates proposed by the Supreme Court, whose head is also selected by the Supreme Leader.

The coexistence of democratically elected and divinely sanctioned offices has resulted in tensions within the Islamic Republic of Iran.

When the two aspects of the Iranian government lean in different directions, especially when the disagreement chiefly lies between the Supreme Leader and the President, this has led to challenging situations.

Following the end of the consensus phase, marked by the undisputed supremacy of Khomeini, the war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988, and finally the death of Khomeini himself, this “dissonance” has emerged clearly and at regular intervals. For example, during the Khatami presidency, the reformist faction attempted to implement a number of political innovations that Khamenei and his followers saw as a kind of dangerous Iranian take on “Gorbachevism,” one that might undermine the foundations of the regime.

At the start of the new millennium, the Islamic Republic of Iran was still an oligarchy divided into different factions organized into parties that all operated within the existing institutional framework. However, following the end of the Khatami era, in 2005, religious conservatives and their supporters – most notably, Ahmadinejad’s radical Right – have attempted to simplify the system by reducing the power of democratically elected offices, which had been taken over by the reformist factions.

Indeed, to religious conservatives, both reformist and pragmatist factions were no longer political competitors, but potential enemies. This led to their alignment, between 2005 and 2013, with the radical Right, which already viewed political adversaries as enemies, and whose antagonistic and simplifying approach leant itself to the task of vigorously ridding the system of “intruders,” using more or less orthodox methods.

Eventually, religious conservatives broke with the radical Right and switched their alliance to Rouhani – not so much a reformist as a very moderate non-conservative. This was an attempt to address the tensions triggered by the 2009 coup that led to the re-election of Ahmadinejad and the defeat of the reformist candidate, Mousavi. Indeed, the electoral irregularities in 2009 led to the emergence of a protest movement known as the Green Wave of Iran.

However, during Rouhani’s cautious presidency, both religious conservatives and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps grew even stronger, even gaining a voice in foreign policy. Following the end of Rouhani’s mandate, they found in Raisi someone who could unite both democratic and theocratic branches, due to his ideological and religious alignment with the Supreme Leader. His death constitutes a major disruption to an already delicate process.

What now? It would be risky for Khamenei’s own son, Mojtaba, to succeed him: such a move would turn Iran into a sort of hereditary monarchy, a development that even the Revolutionary Guard – who view themselves as Khomeini’s true heirs – would oppose.

Raisi would have been an ideal successor following Khamenei’s death or retirement. A true company man, with little charisma, and one unlikely to reduce the power and ambition of the brass.

But the ripple effect of his death is not limited to the problem of finding a new Supreme Leader. It should not be a challenge to find presidential candidates, just as Ali Bagheri has already been tapped to replace Hossein Amir Abdollahian as foreign minister. The real challenge will be the management of an election during a time of internal weakness.

Said weakness is plain to see, despite the limited reach of those who truly oppose the system (as opposed to opposition movements who operate within it): young people, women, and educated city-dwellers, who have mostly focused on cultural change and freedom of opinion.

Woman, Life, Freedom” is a constitutionally acephalous movement, obviously hampered by its lack of leadership, and therefore of organization. However, it is the only somewhat credible form of opposition, unless we include political dinosaurs like the son of the deposed Shah, Reza Pahlavi, or former guerrillas such as the remnants of Mariam Rajavi’s MEK, now unlikely allies of the United States, the very country they once so staunchly opposed.

It appears the regime has opted to call for an election, even though they are not obliged to do so: the Supreme Leader could have simply chosen to replace Raisi with his first vice president until the end of what should have been Raisi’s mandate, in 2025. Perhaps Khamenei did not believe the first vice president would have been able to manage the job, given the many uncertainties both internally and internationally.

Nevertheless, these elections will present several political (as opposed to institutional) challenges. They should proceed according to Article 131 of the Constitution: the first vice president should take on the role of president and lead a council that also includes the heads of the legislative and judiciary branches, and which will go on to call for the election of a new president within 50 days.

On this occasion, the council will include Vice President Mokhber, Speaker of Parliament Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i.

The problem will not be choosing “system” candidates: Ghalibaf himself, a former Revolutionary Guard, is likely to run. Rather, the problem will be turnout, the true indication of popular support for the regime, in a system where the opposition’s hands are tied.

Turnout reached an all-time low for the legislative elections of March 2024: only 41 percent of the electorate participated, and only 7 percent of it in Teheran, a city that is extremely sensitive to the winds of change. Could it drop further?

And what might happen if, in the meantime, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah escalates, or indeed the one between Iran and Israel, which has so far been limited to posturing? All in all, this will be a delicate transition. The Revolutionary Guard will be watching, including its growing faction favoring a military dictatorship without clerical interference. If things go far enough, it is possible that the helmets will order the turbans to step aside, and take center stage.


This article was originally published on the Italian newspaper Domani on May 20, 2024.

Cover photo: An Iranian man is waving a religious flag in front of a portrait of the late Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, while participating in a religious gathering commemorating the death of Iranian President Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash, in southern Tehran, Iran, on May 23, 2024.(Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

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