The Hardliner and The High Stakes: Raisi’s Enigmatic End

The untimely death of three pivotal figures in a single heli crash marks a significant turning point for Iran.

The somber atmosphere was palpable as huge crowds gathered in Tabriz, mourning the tragic loss of President Ebrahim Raisi, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and the Governor of Tabriz, Abedin Khorram. The coffins, draped in the national flag, were carried through the streets of Tabriz, evoking profound grief and contemplation about the future of Iran. Then again, who was Ebrahim Raisi?

Ebrahim Raisi, born on December 14, 1960, in Mashhad, Iran, emerged from a religious family background. His father, a cleric, instilled in him the values that would shape his future. Raisi’s journey through the Qom Seminary, under the tutelage of prominent scholars like Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti and Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, laid the foundation for his influential role in Iran’s judiciary and politics. His presidency, marked by conservative policies and a hardline stance against Western influence, epitomized his dedication to maintaining Iran’s sovereignty and religious values.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the steadfast Foreign Minister of Iran, was a diplomat known for his unwavering commitment to Iran’s strategic interests. His extensive experience in Middle Eastern affairs and his role in shaping Iran’s foreign policy were crucial in navigating the complex geopolitical landscape. Amir-Abdollahian’s efforts to strengthen regional ties with allies like China and Russia, while adopting a firm stance against perceived adversaries, underscored his diplomatic acumen.

Abedin Khorram, the Governor of Tabriz, was a dedicated leader focused on the development and welfare of his region. His efforts in promoting economic growth and addressing local issues earned him respect and admiration. Khorram’s leadership was characterized by his pragmatic approach to governance and his commitment to the people of Tabriz.

The Vintage Bell 212 helicopter fell in a remote, mountainous area around 1 p.m. local time on May 18, 2024. Search and rescue teams, comprising elite commandos from the Revolutionary Guards and other personnel, concurrently battled adverse weather conditions, including rain and heavy fog, to locate the crash site. Despite a massive effort involving approximately 2,000 people, the wreckage was only discovered on Monday morning, with no survivors. The challenging rescue operation underscored the logistical difficulties and potential neglect in maintaining proper protocols for the safety of high-ranking officials.

The visit to the border region itself raised questions about the adherence to standard presidential protocols. Normally, trips involving the highest levels of Government officials would be meticulously planned, with stringent measures to ensure safety. However, the conditions under which Raisi and his delegation traveled suggest potential lapses in those protocols. The decision to undertake such a journey in a region known for its harsh and unpredictable weather, especially in a helicopter, indicates a possible oversight in risk assessment and management. Reportedly, Akinci drone, an. Unmanned Ariel Vehicle (UAV) manufactured by Turkish company Baykar, played a crucial role in the search. As the drone’s call sign, AKINCI01, passed over the crash site, it noticed heat signatures by using its thermal imaging devices.

Raisi, a hardline cleric and a prominent political figure, was seen by many as the potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His ascent to the presidency and his consolidation of power made him a pivotal figure in Iran’s political landscape. This, combined with the timing and circumstances of his death, has led some to consider the crash as more than a mere accident.

Internal Political Dynamics

Raisi’s potential succession to Khamenei’s position was a significant source of tension within Iran’s political elite. Various factions within the Government and the Revolutionary Guards may have viewed his rise as a threat to their own power and influence. Given Iran’s opaque and often brutal political environment, where power struggles are common, it is plausible that internal adversaries might have sought to eliminate Raisi to alter the political trajectory of the country. Internal political dynamics within Iran, with factional rivalries have often led to intense power struggles in Iran.

The untimely death of three pivotal figures in a single heli crash marks a significant turning point for Iran. Their absence creates a power vacuum, which could be exploited by those, who oppose Iranian aggression in the region. Political rivals within Iran, particularly reformists and moderates, might see this accident as an opportunity to shift the country’s direction away from hardline policies. This can also potentially lead to a more moderate administration willing to engage in constructive dialogue with the international community.

Factional Rivalries

  1. Hardliners vs. Moderates: Raisi’s hardline stance often put him at odds with more moderate elements within the Government. According to The Guardian, these moderates might have seen his potential rise to Supreme Leader as a continuation of repressive policies and international isolation. Even within the hardliners camp, there are sub-factions vying for dominance. Raisi’s death could pave the way for another hardliner with a different agenda to gain prominence, further complicating the internal dynamics of Iran’s power structure.
  2. Institutional Power Struggles: The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) wield significant influence in Iran’s political and economic spheres. Any perception that Raisi might shift power balances within the regime could have motivated factions within the IRGC to act against him. As highlighted by The New York Times, the IRGC has previously been implicated in covert operations against political adversaries, adding weight to the theory that internal actors might have had the motive to orchestrate Raisi’s demise.

Raisi’s Hardliner Approach on Key Issues

Raisi’s tenure as President on Iran was marked by his unwavering hardline approach on several key issues, most notably the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the conflict with Israel, particularly following the October 7, Hamas attack on Israel.

  1. JCPOA Stance: Raisi took a firm stance on Iran’s nuclear program, advocating for advancements despite international pressures. His approach often involved leveraging the nuclear issue to extract concessions from Western powers, rather than making significant compromises. This hardline stance resulted in limited progress on reviving the JCPOA, exacerbating Iran’s economic woes but solidifying his base among hardliners who view any concession as weakness. The Washington Post has noted that Raisi was less inclined to negotiate with the West, preferring to maintain a posture of defiance.
  2. Israel and Gaza Conflict: Following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023 Raisi’s rhetoric and policies became even more aggressive. He condemned Israel’s retaliatory actions and reiterated Iran’s support for Palestinian Groups, aligning with Iran’s broader regional strategy of confronting Israel through proxy forces. Raisi’s hardline policies further entrenched Iran’s position as a major player in the region’s conflicts, supporting groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. This approach not only escalated tensions with Israel but also with other regional and global powers. According to Al Jazeera, Raisi’s posturing was a continuation of Iran’s long-standing policy of supporting anti-Israel groups in the region.

Theories of Sabotage and Internal Plots

Given the high stakes involved in Iran’s leadership dynamics, it is not far-fetched to consider that internal actors might have had the motive to orchestrate Raisi’s demise. Several factors support the theory of an insider job:

  1. Historical Precedents: Iranian political history is replete with examples of internal purges and eliminations of key figures perceived as threats. The Revolutionary Guards and intelligence agencies have previously been implicated in covert operations against political adversaries. For instance, The Atlantic has documented numerous cases of internal power struggles within the Iranian regime, adding credibility to this sabotage theory.
  2. Technical Failure Questioned: While the official explanation cites a technical failure, the possibility of sabotage cannot be ruled out. Iran’s aviation sector has been heavily sanctioned, leading to an aging and poorly maintained fleet. However, the coincidence of such a critical failure during a high-profile visit raises suspicions. Experts quoted in The Economist have pointed out that the timings of the crash, amidst heightened regional tensions and just after a significant international visit, suggest a well-planned operation designed to destabilize the current power structure.

Power Struggles Intensify

With Raisi gone, various factions within Iran’s political and military establishment are likely to intensify their efforts to position their candidates for leadership. The Revolutionary Guards, with their substantial influence, may seek to promote a candidate aligned with their interests. Similarly, other hardline and moderate factions will maneuver to assert their dominance. This could result in increased political infighting and instability within the regime. As Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, stated, “A crash will unsettle the political environment… That could spark political infighting inside the regime, especially behind the scenes”.

Potential Policy Shifts

The leadership vacuum could lead to significant shifts in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, depending on who eventually emerges as the new leader. A more moderate figure might seek to engage with the West and revive the JCPOA, aiming to alleviate economic sanctions and foster diplomatic relations. Conversely, another hardliner might continue Raisi’s aggressive policies, maintaining a defiant stance on the nuclear issue and supporting regional proxy groups. The outcome of this power struggle will be crucial in determining Iran’s future direction.

Regional and International Reactions

The international community, particularly United States and Israel, will be closely monitoring the situation. Raisi’s death could temporarily de-escalate tensions, but the long-term impact will depend on the new leadership’s stance. If a more conciliatory leader emerges, there might be opportunities for renewed diplomatic efforts and a reduction in hostilities. On the other hand, the ascension of another hardliner could lead to continued or even heightened conflict, especially concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its support for militant groups in the region. The Israeli War Room’s tweet of a helicopter emoji before news of the crash was public raises suspicions of prior knowledge. This could suggest either a remarkable coincidence or, more ominously, foreknowledge of the event. Given the longstanding tensions between Iran and Israel, such actions could be seen as part of a broader strategy to destabilize Iran or eliminate a key adversary.President Biden’s announcement of Raisi’s death before it was officially confirmed by Iranian state media is another curious development. While it’s not uncommon for leaders to receive intelligence briefings that may include sensitive information, the timing of Biden’s statement raises eyebrows. This premature announcement could indicate a leak of classified information or an attempt to manipulate the narrative surrounding Raisi’s death.

Azerbaijan, a key regional player with close ties to Turkey and Israel, has been involved in various infrastructure projects with Iran. However, the nature of Azerbaijan’s relationship with Iran, particularly in light of Raisi’s hardline stance and Iran’s regional ambitions, raises questions about the true nature of their cooperation. Some analysts speculate that Azerbaijan’s interests in the region, especially regarding its rivalry with Armenia and its alignment with Israel, might have influenced the circumstances leading to the crash.

The dynamics surrounding Raisi’s death underscore the complexities of Iran’s political landscape and the potential for significant changes in the country’s trajectory. Domestically, the country is grappling with economic crises, widespread protests, and calls for political reform. Internationally, Iran is deeply involved in regional conflicts besides confronting numerous challenges related to its nuclear program. The sudden loss of two top leaders could destabilize the political environment, leading to power struggles within the regime. The coming months remain critical in understanding how these internal and external factors will play out and shape the future of Iran. However, the question remains, who benefits from Raisi’s death?

Sehr Rushmeen
Sehr Rushmeen
Sehr Rushmeen, an Islamabad based freelance researcher, did her MPhil from National Defence University (NDU) in Strategic Studies and her BSc from University of London (UOL) in International Relations. Her area of research interest is Strategic Nuclear Studies, Artificial Intelligence in Warfare, South China Sea and South Asian Politics. She tweets by the handle @rushmeentweets and can be reached on sehrrushmeenwrites[at]