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Raisi’s Death Cripples Khamenei’s Decade-Long Project to Maintain Rule over Iran

Three-minute read

On May 20, following the official announcement of the deaths of Iranian regime president Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, along with several other high-ranking officials, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei swiftly made a public appearance. His aim was to reassure his supporters that the regime’s stability was not compromised. By outlining a prompt plan to replace the deceased officials, Khamenei conveyed that the regime could move past this loss. This led many Iranian analysts to entertain various conspiracy theories, while Western experts speculated that the incident might have been an inside job orchestrated by the regime or factions within it.

Regardless of what the cause of the incident was, what is undeniable is that Raisi’s death was a big blow to the investments that Khamenei had made over the past years.

The Raisi Project

In the Iranian regime, questions often outpace the availability of information. However, the recent history of Iran shows that Ebrahim Raisi was the central figure in a decade-long project by the Supreme Leader to ensure the regime’s survival through multiple internal and international crises.

Before the 2017 presidential election, the regime was bolstering its regional and missile strategies using funds released by the JCPOA (2015 Iran nuclear deal) while secretly developing its nuclear project. Frustrated with the previous parliament and President Hassan Rouhani, Khamenei was determined to use the Guardian Council to install Raisi as president in the 2017 election. Raisi had previously been appointed to a lucrative financial and economic position at Astan Quds Razavi by Khamenei himself.

Khamenei, having learned from his experiences with previous presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Rouhani, needed someone with minimal political weight and a heavy criminal record to avoid challenges to his hegemony and more importantly, to resolve the succession dilemma.

When Raisi ran for the 2017 sham presidential election, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, launched a worldwide campaign exposing Raisi’s criminal past as a key member of the Death Commission in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran. The slogan “No to the charlatan and no to the executioner” resonated across Iran. Hassan Rouhani also leveraged this in his campaign, openly criticizing Raisi’s record as “someone who knows nothing but to deal with prisons and executions.”

In 2023, a documentary filmmaker linked to the regime’s intelligence services acknowledged that the 2017 election’s primary issue was the 1988 executions.

The December 2017 uprising surprised Khamenei, with the slogan “Reformists, principlists, the game is over” signaling that the guise of reformism had expired and that consolidation was the only way left for regime survival.

Elevating Raisi’s Profile

With Khamenei’s decree, Sadeq Amoli Larijani was sidelined, and on March 7, 2019, Raisi replaced him as head of the Judiciary. As Chief Justice, Raisi played a key role in suppressing and executing dissidents. To bolster Raisi’s profile, the regime arrested and tried some officials, like Larijani’s deputy Akbar Tabari, on corruption charges, branding Raisi as a “champion against corruption.”

The November 2019 uprising further echoed the imminent threat of regime overthrow, prompting Khamenei to intensify his consolidation efforts. During the February  2020 sham parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council purged those MPs who branded themselves as “reformists” and “moderates,” dubbing the eleventh Majlis as the “revolutionary parliament.” Newspapers affiliated with sidelined factions run headlines, highlighting “the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history,” acknowledging widespread boycott for the first time.

On June 18, 2021, Khamenei paid a hefty price to make Raisi the winner of the sham presidential elections, disqualifying even close allies like Ali Larijani, and making numerous enemies within the regime. The March 1 elections saw Khamenei again purging the parliament of any opposition to Raisi’s policies. The purge extended to schools, universities, and government offices.

Raisi’s Death: A Blow to Khamenei’s Plan

For the last three years, Ebrahim Raisi and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian were advancing the Supreme Leader’s agenda both domestically and internationally. Raisi was the front-runner for the presidency of the Assembly of Experts that resumed on May 21, set to play a crucial role in Khamenei’s succession.

Fearful of another revolution, Khamenei needed key figures who could ruthlessly suppress internal dissent and conduct external terrorism without hesitation. With Tehran’s involvement in the Gaza crisis and other international conflicts such as those in Ukraine, Sudan, and Latin America, Khamenei cannot afford an administration that might compromise or negotiate away what he considers the regime’s leverage of power. For those who thought Khamenei might change his approach after Raisi’s death, the appointment of the 93-year-old super-extremist cleric Ali Movahedi-Kermani as the speaker of the Assembly of Experts sent a clear message: Khamenei may have lost his main pawn, but not his survival instinct.