Tuesday briefing: What the death of Ebrahim Raisi means for Iran’s political future

<span>A newspaper with a picture of the late Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi is seen in Tehran, Iran May 20, 2024. </span><span>Photograph: Majid Asgaripour/Reuters</span>
A newspaper with a picture of the late Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi is seen in Tehran, Iran May 20, 2024. Photograph: Majid Asgaripour/Reuters

Good morning. The death of a president is always an enormously consequential moment – but in Iran, where five days of mourning are under way after Ebrahim Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, the exact nature of those consequences is difficult to parse.

Raisi had been described as a likely successor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei – but also as a figure of limited influence, often by the same analysts. His passing has led some to suggest that nothing will change at all, and others to say that, with a presidential election now due within 50 days, this could be a turning point.

Amid so much uncertainty, it’s probably useful to be clear about how much we really don’t know. But there are some useful pointers in Raisi’s presidency as to what might happen next. To make sense of them, I spoke to Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Amwaj.media, a news website covering Iran. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Contaminated blood scandal | Thousands of victims of the infected blood scandal and their families are to learn how ministers plan to compensate them after Rishi Sunak pledged to pay “whatever it costs”. The details of the scheme will be set out on Tuesday after the publication of Sir Brian Langstaff’s report yesterday, which said that the calamity could “largely, though not entirely, have been avoided”.

  2. WikiLeaks | Julian Assange has been granted leave to mount a fresh appeal against his extradition to the US on charges of leaking military secrets. Two judges accepted that there was an arguable case that he could be discriminated against, after being told that an US prosecutor has said the first amendment may not protect foreigners’ freedom of speech over national security issues.

  3. Israel-Gaza war | The chief prosecutor of the international criminal court has said he is seeking arrest warrants for senior Hamas and Israeli officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, are among them.

  4. UK news | A nursery worker has been found guilty of killing a nine-month-old baby girl who died after being strapped face down to a beanbag for more than 90 minutes. Genevieve Meehan suffocated after being placed in “mortal danger” by Kate Roughley, the deputy manager of Tiny Toes nursery in Cheadle Hulme, Stockport, the trial heard.

  5. Trump trial | Prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney’s office rested their case on Monday after Michael Cohen – whose $130,000 hush money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels is at the heart of the criminal case against Donald Trump – testified that he knew the payment violated federal election law.

In depth: ‘There won’t be a massive upheaval – but there is underlying nervousness about what’s next’

Ebrahim Raisi was not a beloved figure in Iran, as Deepa Parent reflects in this piece hearing from people in Tehran – but that doesn’t mean his critics will necessarily be feeling optimistic today. “You will find as many different feelings about his death as there are Iranians,” Mohammad Ali Shabani said. “But within my own networks, there’s maybe a mix of people who don’t perceive him as having been influential, meaning that there won’t be a massive upheaval – but also an underlying nervousness about what’s next.”

Here’s what we know about the crash that killed him – and here are some thoughts on his position in Iran, and the search for his successor.


Who was Ebrahim Raisi?

“Raisi was a conservative who spent much of his career in the judiciary and oversaw mass executions,” Shabani said. “You are not talking about a liberal democrat.”

Raisi was born into a devoutly religious family in 1960, and attended a Shia seminary aged 15. In this excellent obituary, Robert Tait writes that his life “was defined by violent events”. He joined the mass protests against the western-backed shah in 1979 that led to the Islamic revolution, and climbed the ranks as a prosecutor in Tehran. He was accused of being one of four judges on the infamous “death committee”, which ordered the executions of thousands of dissidents in 1988. (The Iran Primer website has a useful piece from 2021 about that bleak history and Raisi’s role.)

Raisi was seen as a supporter of repressive policies during mass protests in 2009, and as a protege of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (above). He ran for the presidency in 2017 but was well beaten by the reformist incumbent Hassan Rouhani. In 2021, after being appointed as head of the judiciary, he ran again: Rouhani and other plausible moderate candidates were barred from standing, and Raisi won easily.

The turnout in that election was less than 49% – the lowest it has been since 1979. “The authority of the president really relies on a popular mandate,” Shabani said. “And in a semi-authoritarian system, the Islamic republic prides itself on high turnout as an indication of its legitimacy. So that result, in the context of rivals being barred, doesn’t look good.” In any case, his victory meant that conservatives and hardliners held every major power centre in the Islamic Republic.


How important was Raisi within the Iranian system?

As a formal matter, Shabani said, “there’s a dual power structure in Iran, with an elected government and the supreme leader”. Khamenei’s ultimate authority is unchallenged, but the president is the most senior elected official and wields considerable influence.

“For example, foreign policy is within the purview of the supreme national security council, and the president presides over it, but the supreme leader has veto power over its decisions. The president has a major role shaping and directing domestic and foreign policy, but he is one of several players.” (Peter Beaumont has pen portraits of Khamenei, his son Mojtaba, and interim president Mohammad Mokhber.)

At the same time, Shabani noted, Raisi’s formal role was not a complete description of his power. “Much about the influence and authority of the president depends on the individual holding the office,” he said. “Raisi’s primary focus was domestic, and he had a firmly conservative agenda there. But partly because of those questions over his election, he was not generally seen as a personally consequential figure.”


What does his death mean for the succession?

Despite that sense of his relatively limited impact, Raisi had also been seen as a real candidate to follow Khamenei as supreme leader whenever the 85-year-old dies. But, said Shabani, “nobody really knows which names are real contenders for the succession. Yes, there has been talk that he was being groomed – but I would point out that we have very little precedent about how this works. We’ve only had two supreme leaders since 1979. Khamenei ran after two terms as president – well, Raisi ran the first time with the full support of the conservative establishment, and still failed.”

The best reason to give the idea of Raisi as a candidate to succeed Khamenei credence, he added, “is that he was being groomed as a figure who could be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [the IRGC, a key base of Khamenei’s power]. But if it’s the case that he was controllable in that way, it’s unlikely that he was also irreplaceable.”

Some analysts say that Raisi’s death leaves the way clear for Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, when the time comes; whoever comes next is likely to represent continuity on support for regional proxy forces, and work towards the development of a nuclear weapon.


What does it mean for Iran’s foreign policy?

There are two ways of looking at Iranian foreign policy during Raisi’s presidency, said Shabani. “If you look chiefly at Iran’s relations with Europe and the United States, no, he didn’t do much. You haven’t seen a revival of the nuclear deal. But if you look at other relationships – we’ve seen the normalisation of ties with Saudi Arabia. And skyrocketing relations with Russia in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine.”

Raisi also forged closer ties with Beijing, sharply increasing oil exports and agreeing new Chinese investments in Iran. “You can argue about whether those things would have happened without Raisi, but it would not be accurate to say he’s had no influence.” Shabani said. “It’s simply that he has been more focused on Iran’s neighbours, and non-western powers.”

In this analysis, Peter Beaumont writes that any major shift in foreign policy would be more likely to be tied to Khamenei’s succession than Raisi’s death.


Could a new president change Iranian politics?

The choice for Tehran now, Patrick Wintour writes, “is whether to allow the vote to be semi-democratic and contested, or risk nothing by ensuring no candidate with any organisation or following stands against the hardliner likely to be chosen as the regime’s preferred candidate. It is not likely to be a long discussion.”

But, Shabani said, it is possible to imagine another way forward. “Since 2021, every branch of the government has been in the hands of the conservatives,” he said. “That has not been good for Khamenei. In the past, when the executive branch was dominated by non-conservatives, he was able to be flexible about policy – and blame the president if something goes wrong. Now he is painted into a corner, because his own cronies are in charge everywhere – so he has much less flexibility to try different approaches.”

That is why there is now a “golden opportunity” for opening up political space – “to reverse course without losing face, and get voters to engage with the system again, because of the hand fate has dealt you”.

“But I don’t see any indication of that yet,” he added. “There are some shortsighted people around Khamenei who are going to try to shut down anything that challenges dogmas. But that is going to induce apathy, and less legitimacy for the president, whoever it is. They should consider that if they keep making the political circle smaller, they may eventually find that they don’t fit, either.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Since his breakout role in the Sam Mendes war film 1917, George MacKay (above, with Léa Seydoux) has taken on spikier and more challenging roles, predominately as men “suffocated by the codes of traditional masculinity, and turned cruel by them too”, writes Simran Hans. His latest project, the French techno-thriller The Beast, is no different. Nimo

  • This column by Sarah Boseley, the Guardian’s former health editor, captures something of the terrible injustice of the contaminated blood scandal – and echoes calls for a ‘Hillsborough law’. which would put a duty on public authorities and officials to tell the truth when things go wrong.

  • War reporter Ann Neumann worked closely with a fixer named Zleke in Ethiopia during the Tigray war. Two weeks after she left, Zleke was kidnapped and detained for six weeks. Neumann shares his story, highlighting the lack of safety, recognition and pay fixers receive despite being “the backbone of the western news industry”. Nimo

  • An article about the Lucy Letby case was published in the New Yorker last week, and it has been widely discussed online – but I shouldn’t tell you what it says. I wrote about a surreal case study in why the UK’s contempt of court laws need to be updated to make sense in a digital age. Archie

  • Parks are a lifeline for many but, as writes Rebecca Tamás, huge areas of many parks are cordoned off for music festivals for much of the summer. “Defending urban green spaces is just as crucial as keeping sewage from our rivers, and fighting for the right to camp on the moors – because it is within urban parks that our vital love for nature can be kindled,” Tamás argues. Nimo


Football | With the Premier League season over, the Guardian football team have pulled together the ultimate postmortem. Catch up here with the best goals, best signings (and biggest flops), best photos and, most importantly, gripes of the season.

Cricket | Colin Graves will start the process of attempting to demutualise Yorkshire County Cricket Club this year after telling members that “without swift and decisive action” the club “will be fighting for its survival during 2024”. But it quickly became clear he will face stiff opposition, with one local MP asking members to “hold their nerve and oppose” the move.

Tennis | The former US Open champion Emma Raducanu has decided against pursuing qualification for Roland Garros to work on her long-term fitness, Tumaini Carayol writes. Part of the problem, he argues, may be that by accepting entries to big tournaments she is limiting her game time. “So far on the WTA tour, she has won three matches in a tournament just four times. The line between admirable self-confidence and hubris is thin.”

The front pages

We have a full round-up of the papers’ coverage of the contaminated blood scandal today – our usual quick summary follows. The Guardian has “‘Day of shame’: deadly cover-up of blood scandal finally exposed”. The Daily Mirror’s headline is “Make guilty face justice” and the Daily Telegraph features Rishi Sunak’s words “A day of shame for the British state”, while the i’s version is “Day of shame for Britain: blood scandal cover-up killed thousands”. “40 years of bloody cover up” says the Metro. The Times has “Britain’s day of shame over tainted NHS blood”. Likewise in the Daily Express: “This is a day of shame for British state” and the Daily Mail goes with “Day that shames the British state”. The story is on the front of the Financial Times too, though its lead today is “ICC requests arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders”.

Today in Focus

Could Netanyahu really be arrested for war crimes?

International criminal court prosecutors have requested arrest warrants for the leaders of Israel and Gaza. Julian Borger reports

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

On Father’s Day in 2018, Marvyn Harrison started a WhatsApp group chat of 23 Black fathers he knew in London. Six years later, it is a digital safe space for about 40,000 fathers from around the world to discuss their experiences – masculinity, race, parenthood – together with others who can support and understand them.

This picture essay captures a few of these dads with their families – attached to each portrait is a letter about what Black fatherhood means to them and their families.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.