July 2024

Second revolution or political chimera?

Who will succeed the late Iranian president, wonders, Tanya Vatsa and will his successor have the freedom to bring about true reform?

On a disconsolate Sunday, a helicopter carrying the Iranian leader, President Ebrahim Raisi, crashed against the mountainous terrain of Dizmar, near the town of Varzaghan, at the Azerbaijani border. The helicopter was the Bell 212, made by America in the 1960s.

Although the rugged terrain and turbulent weather may have had something to do with the tragedy, it is still unclear exactly what caused the fatal accident. The country’s former foreign minister bitterly blamed the United States and their sanctions regime for the miserly maintenance of the helicopter carrying Raisi. This had allegedly compromised the carrier’s capability to withstand the difficult conditions, leading to what some are viewing as the ‘martyrdom’ of Raisi, who was expected to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeni.

The president’s sudden demise created a leadership vacuum, even as Iran’s presidential elections, slated for June 28, loom, and amidst the Israeli invasion of Gaza, which witnessed direct military confrontation between Tel-Aviv and Tehran, in addition to the ongoing proxy wars. This crisis was met with the immediate appointment of vice-president Mohammad Mokhber as the acting president.

Mohammad Mokhber has been appointed Iran’s acting president

A conservative hardliner, Raisi was known for his vehement opposition to the US and its allies. Under his rule, Tehran moved away from global isolation in an attempt to build ties with nations openly opposed to American superiority, such as Russia and China, and regional neutral powers. He was also known for his staunch crackdown on Iran’s reformist youth, which sparked nationwide controversy when the Iranian moral police were unleashed on people.

Raisi’s victory followed the Guardian Council’s blocking of the representation of reformists and moderates, after Rouhani’s 2015 nuclear deal fell flat under Donald Trump’s reversal of policies. Voter turnout for those elections was grossly inadequate, reflecting people’s discontentment with the choice of leaders presented to them.

While Mokhber’s appointment as acting president is in keeping with protocol, the selection of Ali Bagheri Kani as the acting foreign minister demonstrates a desire to continue Raisi’s regime. Bagheri was the lead nuclear negotiator under Raisi and a vocal critic of the 2015 nuclear deal with the US, thereby declaring a clear political disapproval of the reformist Rouhani regime.

Raisi was known for his vehement opposition to the US and its allies

In an enthralling turn of events, the current elections have three close contenders, with a reformist leading the polls against two conservative candidates. The surprise element in this is the acceptance of a reformist nomination by the Guardian Council. Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist surgeon, is leading the polls with 33.1% of votes, followed by Saeed Jalili, a hardline former nuclear negotiator (at 28.8%), and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander at 19.1%.

While the display of simmering discontent among the Iranian youth means the popularity of a reformist comes as no surprise, it has sent alarm bells ringing among the conservative higher echelons of Iran’s leadership. The reformist approach is that of greater global engagement, including with the US, as propagated by Rouhani. His nuclear deal was a diplomatic win for an otherwise geopolitically isolated Iran and a boost to the Iranian economy by paving the way for foreign investments and trade. Trump’s erratic policies unilaterally ended the deal at the American end, giving the hardliners a shot in the arm and more reason to condemn the reformist ideology.

The upcoming American presidential election presents the possibility of the return of Trump, with his disdain for Tehran

The conservative approach is to boycott all dealings with the West while openly defying sanctions to enable self-sufficiency. The more novel foreign policy includes regional engagements and rigorous military support to the axis of resistance reinforced by the perpetuity of the Israeli retaliation to Hamas in the Gaza strip.

The lead taken by the reformist Pezeshkian is a clear indication of people’s dissatisfaction with the hardline regime. Raisi’s tenure did not improve the economic hardships of the nation. On the contrary, the country saw a rise in inflation and skyrocketing prices, in addition to resentment against moral extremities. It is likely that Pezeshkian’s Iran will follow Rouhani’s optimism regarding external relations and Tehran’s global standing.

However, the looming question is whether the chosen president will have the freedom to change the trajectory of Tehran’s ideological and political future. The president is the head of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which is the highest body in charge of foreign policy and national security. But decisions are made with the consensus of all members and the ultimate power of approval lies with the Supreme Leader.

REFORMIST: Masoud Pezeshkian is leading the polls

Despite the change of guard at presidential level, the Ayatollah remains conservative in his outlook and approach. This leads to two major challenges to Tehran’s political future – first regarding the appointment of a reformist as president, as opposed to two conservative candidates, who seem to have the backing of the old guard as well as the military. The second is regarding the nominal status of such appointments, given that the underlying authority will continue to follow the Raisi model of politics, rather than the populist Rouhani model.

Moreover, the upcoming American presidential election presents the possibility of the return of Trump, with his inconsistent policy-making and disdain for Tehran, bringing back the hardliners to the helm and thus narrowing the chances of an ideological shift within Iranian politics.

In the complex web of an autocratic regime, where popular desire for change always smoulders beneath the surface, the embers are too often put out by iron-fisted patriarchs seated on their hierarchical thrones, moulding public opinion and manipulating global perspectives.

Iran is one such nation state. Whether the posturing of a reformist in a highly conservative structure is merely an act to pull in voters and manipulate international perceptions, or a whole-hearted attempt at giving the public a chance to express their ideological preference, will only be clear after the results of the elections are declared by Ayatollah Khomeni.

Tanya Vatsa is currently the Geopolitical and Predictive Intelligence specialist at Inquest Advisories in India, as well as Editor at the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Dept of Defence, United States of America. She completed her Master’s in Legal Studies at the University of Edinburgh after obtaining a law degree from Lucknow’s National Law University, India