The President of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, an enemy of Ukraine and Putinʼs ally, died. What now? We answer key questions

Dmytro Rayevskyi, Anton Semyzhenko
Kateryna Kobernyk
The President of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, an enemy of Ukraine and Putinʼs ally, died. What now? We answer key questions

Ibrahim Raisi at the 77th UN General Assembly, New York, 21 September 2022.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

On May 19, 2024, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi died. The helicopter on which he was returning from the opening ceremony of the dam on the border of Iran and Azerbaijan had an accident and fell in the middle of the forest. Iranʼs Foreign Minister Hossein-Amir Abdollahian flew with Raisi. Iranian media initially reported the helicopterʼs "hard landing" and even claimed that President Raisi was already driving home. But on the night of May 20, rescuers found a crashed helicopter, all of whose passengers probably died. Ibrahim Raisi became the president of Iran in 2021. He represented the faction of Iranian conservatives, and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally arranged the winning election for him. At the same time, Raisi was considered a probable protégé of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). And Iranians knew him as the "butcher of Tehran", who directed executions and political repressions in 1988. Babel tells who Ibrahim Raisi was and whether his death will change anything in Iran itself and in the world. In particular, for Ukraine and Russia, whose ally Iran became precisely during Raisiʼs presidency.

Does the president decide something in Iran? The Supreme Leader rules there

Iran is an authoritarian country, but not quite a one-man dictatorship. According to the constitution, the supreme leader really has almost unlimited power and determines the general vector of the countryʼs policy. But in practice, there is a rather specific political life in Iran, built around various groups of influence — the military, business, the IRGC, various parties, associations of the clergy, etc.

There are two main political groups—principalists and reformists. The first are also called conservatives, their central organization is the Society of Fighting Clergy, to which Ayatollah Khamenei belongs and President Raisi belonged.

Campaign posters with Ibrahim Raisi against the background of portraits of Ruhollah Khomeini (left) and Ali Khamenei (right) during the 2021 presidential election in Iran.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Power in Iran now belongs almost entirely to the principalists. They have their Supreme Leader, a majority in Parliament and (until recently) a President. But it wasnʼt always like that. For example, in 1997, the reformist Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election, was then re-elected and remained president until 2005. Khatami was perhaps Iranʼs most liberal president, publicly questioning the appropriateness of the death penalty for homosexuals and condemning the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. In 2000, the reformists also won a majority in the parliament.

In 2005, the conservatives regained power when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. And in 2013, the election was won by Hassan Rouhani, a compromise candidate from the Party of Moderation and Development, a centrist political force that balances between conservatives and reformists.

So Raisi was elected in democratic elections?

Nope. In 2021, Supreme Leader Khamenei decided that compromises should end. International experts said that yearʼs elections were the least democratic since 1989. In fact, none of the candidates who had a chance of defeating Ibrahim Raisi, a conservative and a close ally of Khamenei, were admitted to them.

Historian and The Atlantic columnist Arash Azizi believes that Raisi was a convenient president for Khamenei. He writes that Raisi showed himself to be a weak candidate in 2017, and then turned out to be a passive and quiet politician who simply implemented all of Khameneiʼs decisions without controversy.

Ali Khamenei and Ibrahim Raisi.

At the same time, some influential groups, such as the IRGC, gradually prepared Raisi as a successor for Khamenei. Azizi writes that a weak Supreme Leader would allow the real center of power to exist quietly elsewhere. Moreover, there are not many candidates — according to the constitution, the Supreme Leader must be a representative of the clergy with extensive political experience. Many of Iranʼs spiritual leaders who could replace the 85-year-old Khamenei are his own age.

In addition, Azizi says that Raisi has remained true to the ultra-conservative political course — he has more blood on his hands than almost any other Iranian leader. And they know him in particular as the "Tehran butcher".

Why? What is this story?

Ibrahim Raisi in himself is the embodiment of the social elevator of the times of the Islamic Revolution. In 1979, he was 19 years old, he was one of the activists of the revolution. Two years later, Raisi was appointed prosecutor of the city of Kerej, and later — of Hamadan province. In 1985, Raisi was promoted to deputy prosecutor of Tehran.

In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini personally granted Raisi exclusive powers to conduct tribunals bypassing all of Iranʼs judiciary. From July to December 1988, thousands of political opponents of the regime were imprisoned and executed in Iran without proper investigation and trial — it is still unknown exactly how many people disappeared all over the country. According to various sources, about 30,000 people fell under the rink of repression, and at least half of them were killed. And this process was led by the young Raisi, who headed the "committee of inquiry" that conducted secret tribunals.

Ibrahim Raisi during the Iran-Iraq War, 1980s.


After that, Raisiʼs career skyrocketed — he was steadily promoted every ten years. First — to the prosecutor of Tehran, in 1994 — to the head of the General Inspection of Iran, in 2004 — to the deputy prosecutor general and to the prosecutor general in 2014.

For many years, the Iranian opposition has accused Raisi of basing his career solely on the patronage of leaders — first Khomeini, then Khamenei — and his willingness to blindly follow their orders. Because in reality he was quite incompetent, limited and ignorant. Especially in the field of economy, which in Iran the president should mainly deal with. For example, during his tenure, the value of the Iranian rial fell by 55%. And in his apparatus there were almost no experienced economists — the military themselves, priests and people from the IRGC.

And even more, Raisi was accused that his doctorate in law from Tehranʼs Shahid Motahari University was a lie. And that he does not even have a complete secondary education. In addition, his spiritual status remained unclear. In the early 2010s, Raisi began to publicly refer to himself as an ayatollah. But it turned out that no one officially recognized him in this status — for this, a certificate from authoritative Shiite theologians is required, which Raisi does not have. So he ran for the 2017 elections as Hujat al-Islam, a theological title below ayatollah. But after he became president in 2021, he started calling himself an ayatollah again.

Experts say that, in particular, because of this, Raisa had many enemies. Not only among reformists, but also among old conservatives who considered him unworthy of high positions. The patronage of the Supreme Leader protected Raisi from public criticism.

And what will happen now that he is dead?

Power temporarily passed to Vice President Mohammad Mokhber. They write about him as a fairly competent manager, but not a politician and not a leader. And then, not later than in 50 days, special elections should be held. The same Mokhber and the Speaker of the Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, are engaged in their preparation.

Arash Azizi writes that his sources among Iranian officials point to Ghalibaf as the likely next president. And this will again be a compromise figure. Ghalibaf is a conservative, but not a radical, he has connections in many places — an officer and former commander of the IRGC Air Force, a former policeman, a former mayor of Tehran. And in the early 2000s, he managed to work with reformists as a representative of President Khatami. In 2005 and 2013, Ghalibaf already ran for president, and in 2017 he withdrew his candidacy in favor of Raisi.

Iranian presidential candidate Ibrahim Raisi, left, stands next to former presidential candidate and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf during a campaign rally outside the Imam Khomeini Mosque in Tehran on May 16, 2017.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

As for the candidacy of Khameneiʼs successor in the post of Supreme Leader, it is still too early to talk about it. Azizi believes that now, after Raisiʼs sudden death, there will be a "dress rehearsal" for the power struggle that will really begin after Khameneiʼs death. Different factions and groups will try their strength and capabilities.

Although there is already one serious candidate — 54-year-old Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the current leader. In recent years, he has been actively gaining authority in the spiritual circles of Iran and fully shares his fatherʼs radical conservative politics. There is only one problem — it will essentially be a hereditary transfer of power, which contradicts the principles of the Islamic Revolution, as it opposed hereditary monarchy.

And what about the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Was he an important figure?

Like Ibrahim Raisi, Iranʼs late foreign minister Hossein-Amir Abdullahian was a conservative. And a close friend of Qasem Suleimani, who was a major general of the IRGC, responsible for foreign operations, in particular for the rapprochement of Iran with Syria and Russia. When Suleimani was killed by a US pinpoint strike in 2020, Abdullahian called him a strategic genius and a true diplomat.

Hussein-Amir Abdullahian headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2021 — he was appointed by Raisi. The new minister was distinguished by a radical anti-Israel position and aimed to build an "axis of resistance to Israel" in the Middle East. Prior to that, the Iranian Foreign Ministry was headed by the moderate Mohammad Javad Zarif, who concluded the 2015 "uranium agreement" with the UN Security Council and the EU, according to which Iran was supposed to limit its nuclear program and part of the sanctions would be lifted. During Abdullahianʼs time, such agreements had to be forgotten.

For the first time after the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia, the head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry took a neutral position. Thus, in July 2022, in a telephone conversation with Dmytro Kuleba, Abdullahian expressed his condolences to the victims of the Russian missile attack on the center of Vinnytsia on July 14. He assured that Iran will not buy grain stolen by Russia from Ukraine, and offered help in organizing a "grain corridor" through the Black Sea. However, within a few months, when Russia began to attack Ukraine with Iranian Shahed-136 drones, the ministerʼs rhetoric changed.

At first he lied that Iran was not supplying the Russians with weapons at all. Later, he said that the reason for the Russian-Ukrainian war was the expansion of NATO to the east, which is why Moscow was provoked. He called on the West to stop helping Ukraine with weapons — because, they say, this will help end the war. And finally, in the fall of 2023, Abdullahian assured that Hamas terrorists bought weapons "on the black market in Ukraine." In fact, Tehran has long and consistently supported this movement with money, finance and weapons.

Will something change for Ukraine? Will Iran cease to be an ally of Russia?

Hardly so. Not all political forces in Iran support the alliance with the Russian Federation. But as long as the conservatives are in power and Khamenei is the Supreme Leader, the countryʼs foreign policy is unlikely to change.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi during their meeting in the Kremlin on December 7, 2023.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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