Ebrahin Raisi, the end of the story of a “paper pusher” who became President and man of terror in Iran

To understand Ebrahim Raisi's role in Iran of which he was president, it is important to look at his recent past. In 1988 in the country there was one of the largest massacres carried out by the Islamic Revolution: thirty thousand political prisoners were eliminated by order of a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini, who established a “death commission” made up of three young magistrates. One of these was the then mullah, then ayatollah, then Minister of Justice in President Rouhani's government and finally himself the President of the Republic, namely Ebrahim Raisi.

“It's as if Adenauer had appointed Eichmann as Minister of Justice,” Ambassador Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata said of him. This is to say that the political figure of Raisi has always been intimately linked and therefore fully reflected the will of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the summit of that religious caste with whose rules every Iranian president (and the rest of the country) has always aligned himself. But Raisi did more, playing a paper-passing role for the Shiite ultras and fully embracing every choice of the ayatollahs, who from his election onwards have progressively alienated Tehran from the West and have crushed it into positions that to define as conservative is an understatement.

Raisi became president of Iran on 19 June 2021, after winning yet another historically uncompetitive presidential election: in Iran, in fact, a presidential candidate must by law receive the approval of the Supreme Leader, which makes the candidacy of figures impossible really against the regime. Many reformist Iranians have in fact refused to participate in this latest election as it is widely considered to be a given, including former president Rouhani in whom even Barack Obama had placed his trust at the time of the nuclear agreements (which later foundered). Voter turnout for the latest election was consequently 48.8%, the lowest since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

The novelty of the political panorama that stands out on the horizon now, after the disappearance of Raisi and of Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian together with their entourage, is therefore that of a possible upheaval in the open of the hierarchy of power in Iran. In fact, as written only a few weeks ago on Panorama, especially after the death of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani – creator of the Axis of Resistance and the strategy of progressive encirclement of Israel – the Pasdaran or Guardians of the Revolution, seem to have progressively lost interest in the war adventures by proxy conceived by the ayatollahs with whom they share temporal power.

Adventures which, however, have characterized the last decade of the Middle East, without however ever having a significant or positive impact on redesigning regional geopolitics and alleviating the pain of the population, which is suffering from a continuing economic crisis. The “gentle” missile attack against Israel itself, which occurred on the night between Saturday and Sunday 14 April 2024 in retaliation for the bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus, is ample demonstration of this: the Pasdaran, perhaps in open opposition to the will of the Supreme Leader , did not intend to carry out a deadly offensive against “Israeli devils”, but chose de-escalation and collaboration with the United States, Israel's protectors.

If anything, the military caste of the new generation Pasdaran has chosen to dedicate itself to internal affairs, and it is on the concentration of power in their hands that the next presidential election will be played out. This is because the Guardians of the Revolution, as the Pasdaran are called, have established themselves over time as a paramilitary body separate from the state apparatus, and today they hold the heart of Persian economic power. Therefore, they implicitly represent a sort of counter-power to the armed forces and the very institutions that emerged from the Khomeinist Revolution. It is therefore to them and to the moves of the coming weeks that we will need to look to understand how this national mourning can be transformed into a transition that could lead Iran towards new shores and political perspectives.

If this were the case, if the Pasdaran really will take advantage of the death of Khamenei's loyalist to achieve their objective, we will soon understand. Certainly, the ayatollahs are starting to represent an obstacle to their idea of ​​government. The Guardians, in fact, fear that the unstoppable wave of protests against the restrictions and harassment that the religious impose on the people could seriously harm the process of consolidation of their caste as the sole referent of absolute power in Iran. Furthermore, the fact that we have now turned the new generations of Iranian men and women against their own institutions is a serious matter, which must be handled with caution.

Of course, it can be argued that Raisi's death was truly accidental, that there was only the “hand of God” behind the crash in the mountains on the border with Azerbaijan (similar incidents had already happened, including to Ahmadinejad just over a decade ago). Moreover, the helicopter on which the president was traveling was so old that it had even belonged to the Shah, and needed to be replaced urgently (but American sanctions had prevented the updating of the state's aircraft fleet). Yet, if you are right in thinking badly, imagining sabotage is something that – at these levels – cannot be discarded a priori.

Who benefits from the death of the Iranian president who is perhaps most loyal to the ayatollahs ever? Of course, it would be tempting to immediately point the finger at the two great enemies of the Islamic Republic, Israel and the United States. Excluding the latter, who had no reason to destabilize Iran during the elections, Israel would have had its own interests: however, for Jerusalem, if anything, the Supreme Leader and not the president would have been the target. Therefore, if we remain in the already boiling context of the clash of powers taking place within the government structure, more than one element indicates that it will be the Pasdaran who will enjoy his disappearance. Who can now try to impose their own candidate for president.

If nothing changes, however, if no one takes advantage of this sudden event and the Supreme Leader Khamenei actually invests his son Mojtaba with the role of president (which the latter cares a lot about and is in fact considered the “eminence grise” of the regime), it will be the demonstration that it was best to stick to the official version, that of the plane crash. After that, according to the Iranian constitution, upon the death of the incumbent president, a so-called “Fifty Days” period begins, during which the organization of new elections begins, with the vice president temporarily assuming the role of acting head of government. During this time, the vice president leads a committee that oversees the preparation of the vote, together with the head of the judiciary and the speaker of parliament.

The great unknown, obviously, is not so much in the list of candidates – which, as mentioned, must be approved by the Supreme Leader – but rather how Iranian civil society will respond to this news, at a time when the country is experiencing an economic crisis which grips the majority of the population, while the people led by women contest the very concept of theocracy. Will they be able to take advantage of it? And how?

For the same reason that moves the Pasdaran, the people could paradoxically look to the latter, even if obtorcocollo, as indispensable interlocutors to obtain a “regime change” that eliminates once and for all the excessive power of the Supreme Guide, and allows a first destructuring – albeit partial – of the hitherto absolute power of the religious. This is because it is precisely the secular Pasdaran who are the only representatives who could put an end to the senseless brutality of the theocratic regime which arbitrarily puts demonstrators to death for “acts against God”, for example by ceasing to apply the will of the Shiite clerics in this sense.

It is precisely the presence of the ayatollahs at the top of the power pyramid that still makes it impossible for Iran to become a respected country, at least in the West. And if a full nuclear capacity would change the substance and the balance in an external way, in the end it is those who decide the internal politics of a country who determine its history. Also for this reason, the next elections will be crucial for the future of Iran and ultimately the entire Middle East.