Dim hope for reforms after Raisi


The death of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday afternoon in a helicopter crash ends the political career of one of the most divisive political figures in Iran in the past four decades.

It also creates a vague, cautious hope among the more moderate groups in Iran, and much of Iran’s diaspora, that a new president will end Iran’s current isolation, the repressive and fundamentalist government policies of recent years and Iran’s role in fueling conflict, tension and war in the Middle East, at least to some extent.

Ebrahim Raisi was elected president of Iran in June 2021. Raisi gathered 72% of the votes in the election for him. The more important number, however, is the low turnout of just 48% of voters who bothered to vote. Iran is not a full-fledged democracy. Candidates who want to qualify to become president apply to the Guardian Council, and this council has the sole right to decide which candidates are approved. The Guardian Council is once again appointed by Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also the most powerful person in Iran.

Purging moderate politicians in Iran

In 2021, two moderate and respected candidates applied to run against Raisi. Eshaq Jahangiri Kouhshahi was the first deputy president in the more moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani between 2013 and 2021. He advocates political reforms in Iran and is therefore disqualified from standing as a candidate in 2021.

Ali Ardeshir Larijani was speaker of Iran’s parliament from 2008 to 2020 and is also considered a moderate politician in favor of reforms. Larijani was also disqualified as a presidential candidate in 2021.

Due to the disqualification of moderate candidates, more than half of voters did not go to vote in the election. Although Raisi gathered 72% of the votes cast for him, this is only 34% of the votes of all those entitled to vote. In the parliamentary elections that took place in Iran in March this year, the voting percentage was even lower at just 40%, precisely because the Council of Guardians has now also disqualified moderate candidates for Iran’s parliament on a large scale.

Raisi’s election to the presidency in 2021 should be seen within the context of an increasing effort by Khamenei and the Guardian Council to purge Iran’s political scene of any moderate politicians in favor of reforms. Rouhani’s era, which was characterized by small steps in favor of reforms and the normalization of relations with the West, was one too many for Khamenei.

The ayatollah is already 85 years old, and with his death a successor will have to be decided. Over the past year or two, a consensus has begun to emerge especially among Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, one of the strongest and most influential institutions in Iran, that Raisi would succeed Khamenei. Now there is no natural choice as a successor.

The most important consequence of Sunday’s accident and Raisi’s death is therefore not necessarily that Iran must get a new president, but rather that the natural successor of the ayatollah is now dead and there is no other logical successor. Groups hoping for a change in direction in Iran see the greater opportunity instead after the demise of Khamenei.

Historical context

Events in contemporary Iran must be seen in context. Iran with its Persian population must be clearly distinguished from Arab countries in the Middle East. Strong independent thinking, progressive movements in favor of freedom and democracy and a pro-Western approach have existed among a substantial part of the population for more than a century.

Between 1905 and 1911, the Persian Constitutional Revolution gave rise to substantial reforms. This included the strengthening of Iran’s parliament and democratic elections, and it also ushered in several decades of tension between democracy and monarchy in Iran.

By the 1950s, Mohammad Mosaddegh was the prime minister of Iran. After his announcement that Iran’s oil resources would be nationalized because British companies owned and operated them largely for their own profit, the American and British intelligence services began a covert operation to bring down Mosaddegh. This led to a coup in 1953. The monarchy led by the shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was strengthened and British and American influence in Iran could be re-established.

While Mossadegh maintained a careful balance between modernization and the influence of spiritual leaders in Iran, the shah allowed Western influence to increase without limit, which included the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the general secularization of Iranian society. This led to anger among the minority of Islamic fundamentalists which eventually led to the revolution in 1979.

In 1979 the shah was overthrown and an Islamic theocracy led by Ayatollah Khomeini was established. All forms of modernization and secularization were reversed, Israel’s right to exist was rejected and Iran’s relationship with the West deteriorated rapidly, especially after the hostage drama in the American embassy in Tehran.

Iran’s population in 2024

The three most important groups in Iran are the military group with specifically the Revolutionary Guard as the main player, then the spiritual leaders with the ayatollah and the Council of Guardians who largely control Iran politically, with the president and government simply following the will of the ayatollah and execute the Council of Guardians. The Council of Guardians was established in the 1980s and consists of six Shia mullahs and six jurists who must watch over all political appointments, parliamentary decisions, as well as maintaining morality through censorship and enforcing strict dress requirements, especially for women.

According to various investigations, the narrow and strict movement of the ayatollah and his spiritual leaders enjoys the support of no more than 20% of Iran’s population. However, it is through the cooperation between the spiritual leaders and the military group in Iran that power is maintained and that any protests and uprisings against the regime are suppressed.

The third grouping in Iran is that part of the population that is in favor of political reforms, modernization, secularization and a restoration of ties with the West. It is clear that a majority of Iran’s population falls within this grouping.

A 2022 survey by the Gamaan Institute found that 41% of Iranians favor the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, while 21% favor a more gradual transition through reforms and structural changes. According to this poll, only 18% of Iranians were satisfied with the current strict Islamic theocracy. Less than half of Iran’s population still identify as Shiite Muslims. A majority consider themselves secular.

Young people in Iran are mostly highly educated, politically liberal and strongly opposed to the government’s fundamentalism and repression of women, minorities and opposition viewpoints. This has led to violent protests in recent years that have mostly been suppressed by the regime with brutal force.

The question is not whether a tipping point will ever be reached, but rather when and how a tipping point can be reached, which could eventually lead to massive reforms in Iran. Such a tipping point can occur either through a bloody revolution, or through a process of gradual reforms.

Iran’s role in the Middle East and globally in 2024

In the last almost three years under the leadership of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran has substantially expanded its role in the Middle East with support to terrorist groups and other armed forces in various countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Although this network of Iranian proxies already existed before Raisi’s term, his government aggressively strengthened it and there was a particularly strong focus on the delivery of weapons to groups such as the Houthi rebels, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program is progressing to such an extent that the country already has enough enriched uranium for three nuclear weapons. The big question remains whether Iran has the will, or perhaps is secretly already working, to develop a nuclear weapon.

Over the past two years, Iran has also sold weapons, especially drones, to Russia for its war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the relationship with Russia and China was strengthened.

From the beginning of this year, Iran is also a member of Brics+, after Russia and South Africa in particular gathered support for this country’s inclusion. Iran’s economy is suffering from severe Western sanctions, and the Iranian government hopes that its inclusion in Brics+ will help open up new markets.

However, it is clear that in 2024, Iran is an extremely isolated country that is still viewed globally as a supporter of terror. Closer ties with Russia, China and participation in Brics+ are not necessarily going to make a huge difference.

Ultimately, however, it is clear that the West, precisely from the lessons of the disastrous 1953 coup, realizes that reforms in Iran will ultimately have to be imposed by the population itself. Raisi’s death may help accelerate such reforms, but a miracle should not be expected anytime soon.