Mourners crowd around the flag-draped coffins of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi...

Mourners crowd around the flag-draped coffins of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his companions, who were killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, during their funeral ceremony in the city of Mashhad, Iran, Thursday. Credit: AP

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

On Sunday, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s ultraconservative president, was flying home after participating in the opening of a new dam near the Iran-Azerbaijan border. But shortly after takeoff, Raisi’s helicopter went down in a mountainous area of the Iranian countryside. Once rescue teams were able to reach the crash site, it was clear that Raisi and all those aboard, including the Iranian foreign minister, were dead.

Taken in isolation, Raisi’s death would appear to be a major event. Raisi, after all, was the top elected official in Iran, so his removal will have at least a short-term effect on how the Iranian government operates. But the system that has ruled Iran since 1979 will find a way through this setback and churn on. According to the Iranian constitution, Raisi’s first vice president will be elevated to the presidency in an interim capacity, and elections will be organized in 50 days.

Notables of the Iranian state will mourn the loss, but it’s hard to overstate just how ruthless Raisi was. He was an Islamic Republic insider through and through, a highly conservative jurist who joined the country’s judicial system at the age of 25. Raisi rose quickly, becoming the deputy prosecutor for Tehran and eventually serving on a panel focused on the charging and sentencing of dissidents. Colloquially known as the Death Committee, Raisi and his colleagues sentenced approximately 5,000 people to death, a fact that hurt Raisi’s reputation when he ran for president against incumbent Hassan Rouhani in 2017. Raisi, however, was unapologetic about his role and insisted he did his duty in service of the Islamic Republic’s system of government.

Even with his hands stained with blood, Raisi’s fealty propelled him into more senior positions. He would go on to serve as Tehran’s chief prosecutor before being appointed to the Assembly of Experts. a body that elects and oversees Iran’s supreme leader. Eventually, Raisi assumed the role of the country’s prosecutor general. In 2019, he led Iran’s judiciary. And in 2021, Raisi won the presidency on his second try.

The Iranian establishment will no doubt spend the next several days honoring Raisi’s extensive service. For good reason — he was a ruthless enforcer of the Iranian government’s agenda. Raisi was a particular favorite of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has held the office for the last 35 years. In fact, the main reason Raisi was elected president three years ago was because Khamenei prevented more appealing alternatives from running. But what Raisi lacked in charisma, he more than made up for in subservience; the man, frankly, was a toady doing the supreme leader’s bidding. He wouldn’t act unpredictably like the brash Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or challenge the supreme leader’s office like Mohammad Khatami. Instead, the jurist-turned-president would take it on the chin and do what he was told. If anybody is going to make a documentary about him, it might as well be called “The Loyal Henchman.”

The Iranian people certainly won’t be shedding many tears. Raisi’s tenure was marked by high unemployment, a dismal economy, political repression and strict social mores. With the exception of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and improving Tehran’s strategic ties with Russia, Raisi’s accomplishments are few and far between. U.S. economic sanctions remain locked in, depriving Iran of critical foreign investment and hindering its oil industry — although Iranian crude exports have been inching upward courtesy of demand from China. The rial, Iran’s currency, lost 30% of its value between February 2023 and February 2024 and briefly plunged to a record low in April. The price of food has skyrocketed, and inflation has hovered around 40%, which combined with a weakened currency has affected the most vulnerable in Iran.

Iran was never a free society, even before the advent of the Islamic Republic, but it got noticeably less free under Raisi’s watch. In September 2022, after the so-called morality police detained and beat a young woman, Mahsa Amini, to death for the way she dressed, thousands of Iranians came out to protest the Iranian government’s social laws. Raisi wasted little time calling in police to brutally suppress the protesters. According to one human rights group, more than 500 people were killed in the ensuing seven months. Thousands more were arrested and treated as enemies of the state.

U.S. policymakers now are wondering: What happens next? And will Iran change for the better without this hard-liner at the helm?

The answer to the first question is to be determined. The Iranian government will schedule a new election sometime in the summer, where various hand-picked candidates will compete for the honor of being Khamenei’s loyal surrogate. The challenge for Iranian officials will be to drum up some sort of excitement about the upcoming contest at a time when many Iranians are disillusioned with politics and even their own lives. During parliamentary elections in March, only 41% of eligible voters turned in ballots, the lowest electoral turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history.

As to whether Iran will change for the better, we shouldn’t hold our breath. The hard-liners hold all the power nowadays, and whatever is left of the moderate camp is a discombobulated mess whose influence is gutted by the system.

If anybody is anticipating the breaking of a new dawn in U.S.-Iran relations, I recommend they go outside and get some air.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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