Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi (1960-2024) was killed along with the foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and seven others when the helicopter they were travelling in crashed in thick fog in the mountainous north-east of Iran Image Credit: AFP

The helicopter crash and subsequent death of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi has shocked the world, although it’s not the first time, and nor will it be the last, that a senior political figure dies in such circumstances.

In almost every single case, wild conspiracy theories have surrounded those deaths, starting with the plane crash that took the life of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in September 1961.

A charismatic statesman, Hammarskjold crashed in what is now Zambia while negotiating a ceasefire in Congo. Former US president Harry Truman said back then, “He was on the point of getting something done when they killed him.”

Five years later, Iraqi president Abdul Salam Aref died in similar circumstances, followed in February 1977 by Alia Toukan, the queen of Jordan, and in August 1988 Pakistan’s sixth president Mohammad Zia Ul Haq. In June 1987, eight-time Lebanese premier Rashid Karami died from an explosion on his plane during the Lebanese civil war.

Times have changed, however, and so has technology, which ought to have saved Raisi’s life. Far more importantly than how he died and who will succeed him is what this will all mean for Iran’s future.

No one is irreplaceable

Ebrahim Raisi is not irreplaceable; no Iranian head of state is — given that real power rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many names are already making the rounds, including former presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hasan Rouhani, or Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, speaker of the Iranian majlis.

An acting president is already in place and new elections will take place within fifty days. Raisi’s term would have ended in 2024 and another tenure would have kept him at his post no further than 2029.

Its Khamenei’s succession that’s the bigger issue in Iran, not Raissi’s. Like him, he too was president between the years 1981-1989, before becoming Supreme Leader after the death of Imam Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. Taking that parallel and building upon it, many believed that he too was being groomed to replace Khamenei.

Balanced understanding of history

Although undoubtedly valid, this theory runs the risk of reading too much into history and drawing parallels that aren’t necessarily correct.

Unless specified by Khamenei during his own lifetime as next-in-line for the post of Vali ye-Faqih, Ebrahim Raisi’s chances were actually slim at replacing him. When becoming president in 2021, his religious credentials were simply Hojet-al-Islam (or scholar of Islam), and not Ayatollah.

This technically can be overrun if found necessary by the Assembly of Experts, an elected body of 88 clerics who by Article 111 of the Iranian constitution, are authorised to appoint and dismiss the Supreme Leader. The sixth assembly elections took place last March and the new body was expected to start work next June. Given Khamenei’s age (he’s 85), it was this assembly that was due to decide his successor. It remains headless at the time of Raisi’s death.

Mojtaba versus Raisi

Before the president’s plane crash on Sunday, two names were making the rounds for post-Khamenei Iran.

One was Khamenei’s biological son Mojtaba; who teaches theology at a religious seminary in the city of Qom and attained the rank of Ayatollah in August 2022. The other was Ebrahim Raisi, who many considered his adopted political son.

Many wrongly believed that Raisi was challenging Mojtaba Khamenei’s bid for power although the late president would not even think of working against the Khamenei family interests, given his closeness to the grand Ayatollah. Nothing speaks that better than an image of Khamenei released last month, showing him surrounded by senior clerics. His son sat directly to his right and to his right stood Ebrahim Raisi.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with top commanders of Iranian armed forces in Tehran, Iran Image Credit: Reuters

Who then will succeed Khamenei?

Khamenei has not named a successor and yet, he is often quoted saying that he has no intention of making his son the next leader. Iran’s Supreme Leader hails from a generation of clerics that took great pride in dismantling the heredity dynasty of the Pahlavis back in 1979.

We can’t tell for sure if he sees things eye-to-eye with his son on this matter although there is a high probability that Mojtaba Khamenei may want to become supreme leader. He has been in the limelight since his teens, when serving during the Iran-Iraq War while his father was president.

Whether that ambition leads to anything concrete is another matter. He derives his influence not from his religious credentials, but rather, directly from his father.

We must not forget that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s son Sayyid Ahmad Khomeini was also close to his father, and served as his bureau chief until 1989 but he didn’t go on to become the Supreme Leader.

With Raisi no more, who then will succeed Ali Khamenei? The truth is: nobody knows and nobody can tell for sure. It won’t be Mojtaba Khamenei in all likelihood. That’s something that’s decided at a very high level in Tehran — a level that no western governments or journalists have access to.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of the best-seller Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.