(Bloomberg) -- The death of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi raises a serious question about the future of one of the most powerful jobs in the Middle East: who or even what can succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Hard-line cleric Raisi — who died on Sunday in a helicopter crash — and Khamenei’s son Mojtaba were widely seen as the frontrunners to replace Iran’s ultimate ruler. 

With Raisi gone, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the most powerful arm of Iran’s military which over the past two decades has significantly increased its influence on the country’s politics and economy — is now well placed to become more powerful than any individual who might eventually replace Khamenei, who’s in his mid-80s.

“I don’t look at the issue of the Supreme Leader’s succession in terms of an individual, but rather an institution and I see that institution being the IRGC,” said Saeed Laylaz, previously an adviser to former president Mohammad Khatami. The gravitational center of power in Iran is likely to shift from “clerical slippers to combat boots,” after Khamenei’s death, Laylaz added.

Western officials and regime insiders said it’s unlikely Raisi’s death will change the Islamic Republic’s foreign and regional policy — a factunderscored by Khamenei himself when he told the public that there would be “no disruptions” to how the country is run. Read More: Ebrahim Raisi, Iranian President Confronting West, Dies at 63

But the accident has turned attention to what Iran will look like after Khamenei. It comes at a time when the regime faces unprecedented levels of dissent at home, is trying to revive a sanctions-hit economy and is involved in a string of regional conflicts and crises, from Afghanistan to Gaza and Yemen. 

When Khamenei took over as Supreme Leader in 1989 after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini Iran was in turmoil: isolated from the West following the Islamic Revolution a decade earlier, the country was recovering from a devastating war with Iraq that had compounded its economic isolation. 

“Now Iran has much stronger capabilities beyond its borders in ways that were unimaginable under Khomeini,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “He doesn’t want to leave a legacy that’s on a par with his predecessor; he doesn’t want to leave a country in ruins and weakened by much stronger adversaries.”

Defenders of the Republic 

The IRGC has been central to that strengthening process. Designated a terrorist organization by the US in 2019 it was set up by Khomeini to protect the Islamic Republic as a political regime. It has increased considerably in size and strength over the past 20 years. And it has been instrumental in fostering a network of proxies and militias across the Middle East designed to protect Iran’s interests, spread its influence and constantly challenge the US presence in the region.

It also dominates Iran’s economy, having amassed a huge number of assets including a business conglomerate that manages large industrial companies, oil refineries and engineering firms involved in multi-billion dollar projects.

Khamenei has been fundamental to this expansion and together with the IRGC has shaped Iran’s regional policy and security posture. 

Since 2018, when the US withdrew from the nuclear deal — an agreement between Tehran and world powers — and then later came close to conflict with the Islamic Republic after killing top IRGC General Qassem Soleimani, the Guards have taken a more prominent role in the running of the country. 

This was evident in the way Iran responded to an attack on its consulate in Damascus in April, blaming it on Israel. When Tehran retaliated with a barrage of missiles and drones targeting Israel, the decision was taken by Khamenei and several senior generals in the IRGC, a person with direct knowledge of decision-making in Tehran said.Read More: Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ Watches Israel and Waits for Command

Ahead of the attack on Israel, the government was side-lined until Khamenei authorized a brief and intense period of communication with Arab neighbors and the US in the days before the April 13 strike.

“Khamenei still preserves enough authority to rein in the military,” Vaez said, “but his successor will certainly not be as well placed, at least not early on, if ever.” 

Even the deaths of Raisi and Hossein Amirabdollahian, the foreign minister who was also killed in the crash, present an opportunity for competing groups within the IRGC and the hard-line political faction that surrounds Khamenei. Both will look to strengthen their hold over Iran's regional policy to enhance their positions ahead of any transfer of power.

“The IRGC will have a major say in Khamenei’s succession and at least will increase the considerable control they have in the system,” said Rob Macaire, British ambassador to Iran from 2018 to 2021.

Replacing Raisi as caretaker president, ahead of elections on June 28, is former IRGC officer Mohammad Mokhber, who has close links to Khamenei’s office. Ali Bagheri Kani, who has stepped in as foreign minister, is a member of the hardline political faction, the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, known as Paydari, which had spent years grooming Raisi to succeed Khamenei.

“Now they don’t have a candidate,” said Vali Nasr, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a former adviser to the US State Department.

Iran’s New York Operation

Khamenei is determined to hand the country over to his successor in better shape than he found it, said analysts. That includes ensuring the right institutions and personalities are in place so that he can stage manage his succession while he’s still alive. 

Part of that strategy has been repairing ties with some of Iran’s neighbors including Saudi Arabia, a traditional foe, the United Arab Emirates and other regional powers. November’s US elections — and the potential return of Donald Trump, who abandoned the nuclear deal, as president — have acted as a catalyst for this effort to improve communications.

That too was evident in the days before the attack on Israel when Tehran warned Arab neighbors and the US of its intentions. Amir Saeid Iravani, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, was part of this diplomatic push, according to the person with direct knowledge of decision-making in Tehran.​

The attack was risky but measured, said one European diplomat who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. It showed clearly that signals from Iran had been well signposted and understood by Washington in the hours before the strike, the diplomat added. Comparing the situation to 2020, and the tensions triggered by the death of Soleimani, the Iranians had many more ways of reaching the US, the European diplomat said.

Iravani's New York office at the UN is taking a much more proactive role in diplomatic maneuvers. It has a green light from Tehran to contact US officials as well as a direct line to Khamenei’s office in Tehran, according to Laylaz. 

“It all suggests that Khamenei is navigating a thin line,” Nasr said. “To him, where Iran is and what it needs is first and foremost a successful and stable succession.”

Iravani, a former senior official at Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, also previously held a role in the Supreme Leader’s office. It makes him the first person from an intelligence background to be appointed to the UN role, said the person with direct knowledge of decision-making in Tehran, adding that the official is well trusted by Khamenei.

Another European diplomat, who didn’t want to be named, said Iravani has been quietly working behind the scenes for years helping to execute Iran’s strategy toward the West.

The Biden administration has also been working to decrease tensions, said an Iranian government official, who didn’t want to be named because they weren’t authorized to comment on the matter.

Stories about reviving the nuclear deal are now being floated by Iranian state media channels close to the ruling system. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN body that’s been monitoring Iran’s nuclear program for years, has also said that Tehran has recently shown a willingness to engage in “serious dialogue” with the watchdog, according to the Financial Times. 

Putting Iravani in charge of Tehran’s only diplomatic station in North America and leaning heavily on recent efforts to build bridges and mend relationships across the Arab world “suggest that Khamenei is playing a much more complicated and much more nuanced game than simply going ballistic on Israel,” said Nasr.

Danger in Domestic Dissent 

Against this backdrop of political and strategic machinations sits Iranian society and a population — most of which was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution — that’s probably more adrift from its leadership today than at any stage in the last 45 years.

While Raisi oversaw modest economic growth after his 2021 election, the country’s currency hit successive record lows during his leadership, losing almost 70% of its value against the dollar in the open, unregulated market. And as much as clerics and generals in Tehran can be pragmatic with geopolitics, they prefer to be unsparing and ruthless in how they deal with their widespread unpopularity in urban centers and among the young.

Read More: Iran’s President Raisi Was a Failure

The Supreme Leader and the IRGC risk undermining themselves with their harsh internal repression, according to a third European diplomat, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The past eight years have been some of the most volatile in the history of the Islamic Republic and each fresh chapter of domestic unrest has been met with a stronger response from the security forces. The most recent demonstration of this was the uprising triggered by the September 2022 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who’d been arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict Islamic dress codes.

Protests swept the country, gripping communities and explicitly challenging Khamenei and his rule in unprecedented ways, most visibly by women shunning mandatory headscarves or hijab — a defining feature of the Islamic Republic. The security forces crushed dissent, killing hundreds of protesters — most of whom were women and young people — and arresting thousands more, according to human rights groups. At least seven men were hanged for taking part in the demonstrations.

A renewed crackdown against women is currently underway, which some have sought to blame on the regional tensions, arguing that Tehran wants to avoid any opportunity for domestic protest.

Mobile phone videos showing teams of uniformed officers and their female colleagues, cloaked in black from head-to-toe, beating and dragging young women in public and forcing them into police vehicles, have proliferated on social media platforms like X and Instagram.

“What keeps Khamenei up at night I don’t think is protesters in Iran,” Nasr said, “it’s his legacy. He’s concerned about his legacy and the continuity of the Islamic Republic along the lines that’s best for the system.” 

--With assistance from Fiona MacDonald.

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