Al Khamenei greets Nasrallah
Al Khamenei greets NasrallahIran News Agency -JNS

The sudden death in a suspicious helicopter crash of Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian regime’s president, has kept people and pundits guessing about how it might affect the Supreme Leader’s succession. While many see the chances of Mojtaba, Khamenei’s second son, improved for leadership, I believe the issue is far more complex. Raisi’s “hard landing” will certainly disrupt Khamenei’s succession plan, but not in a way that many think. In this article I am going to explain how.

Succession has only happened once in the history of the Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989), the first Supreme Leader of Iran, for a number of reasons did not settle the issue of his succession while still alive. First, as the paramount spiritual leader he saw it below himself to engage in a matter that would smack of political factionalism. Second, for a long time Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri was accepted by almost unanimous consensus as Khomeini’s de facto successor. Third, towards the end of his life Khomeini suffered from a quickly worsening cancer that likely cut short any last-minute plans.

As such, managing the issue of succession fell to a coterie of three that were closest to Khomeini. They were Ahmad, his son and confidant, Khamenei, the president, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of parliament. They conspired to rule as a triumvirate, with Khamenei as the leader, Rafsanjani the president, and Ahmad the bearer of his father’s legacy. But the three gradually fell apart, and in a cloak-and-dagger drama that puts Shakespeare’s tragedies to shame, Khamenei finally eliminated his rivals and consolidated his position as the all-powerful Supreme Leader.

Fully aware of the treacherous circumstances that led to his ascendency, Khamenei has long been trying to prevent his having the same fate that befell his predecessor’s progeny and legacy. As such, years in advance he undertook to arrange the stage by purging potential disrupters and handpicking loyalists who would prove instrumental for succession when the time came.

This is how Raisi emerged on the stage from near total obscurity. Contrary to many who think Raisi was raised to presidency in order to succeed Khamenei, I believe he was put forward by the establishment first and foremost to ensure the continuity of Khamenei’s ideological vision for the future, with or without himself as the next leader. Raisi was by no means a charismatic character. In fact, he was totally bland. But what he lacked in personality, he more than made up for with blind loyalty to the regime and to Khamenei. As such, if Mojtaba were indeed to ascend the throne, Raisi would have been there to facilitate it rather than contesting it.

But unlike Khomeini’s time, there are strong signs that Khamenei’s enemies want to disrupt his succession and play their own game of thrones. Thus, removing Raisi actually deals a blow to his carefully constructed plan. Who benefits from this is of course a matter of speculation, but those who have been subjected to rounds of purges and consigned to the regime’s margins are on top of the list, namely the so-called Reformists/Moderates and the “Shadow Guards.”

In the first decade after the 1979 revolution, those who would later become known as Reformists were Khomeini’s closest affiliates. Back then they called themselves the “Line of Imam” in reference to Imam Khomeini. They were sidelined by Khamenei and his faction since 1989, and their star further faded with Rafsanjani’s suspicious death in 2017. Divested of power, they pragmatically styled themselves as Reformists and started to mend fences with the West.

For decades, these Reformists/Moderates, many of whom stationed in Europe and North America, have been hoping to supplant Khamenei with the help of their Western friends and metamorphose the Islamist regime into a more “moderate” version of it. These are still very active today and will potentially benefit from any disruption in Khamenei’s succession plan.

Then there are the Shadow Guards. This is my coinage, and I am going to explain it here. Contrary to popular belief in the West, the Revolutionary Guards are not all pro-Khamenei. In fact, there have been instances of Guards’ commanders who acted against Khamenei or demonstrated displeasure with his way of doing things. If not already secretly dispatched, these now live in the margins of the regime. There are also commanders who are periodically rotated by Khamenei so that they don’t take into their heads to rebel or act as kingmakers.

All that has created an amorphous entity within the IRGC that I call the Shadow Guards, because their boundary with the rest of the organization is not clear-cut and they mostly act from the shadows. These are not necessarily disloyal to the regime’s ideological agenda, but they want to find a chair when the music stops. As such, they have a stake in steering the succession, and it looks like they have already reached out to some old enemies in the region and the West.

These two factions, the Reformists/Moderates and the Shadow Guards, have had their differences, but as the regime’s totality deteriorates, they are converging and are likely to work together. They both have unique assets as well as extensive media representation and strong lobbying in the West. While the former wear a liberal/leftist mask, the latter reinvented themselves in the image of ultranationalism. Their goal is to keep Iran an authoritarian oligarchy by co-opting elements of the monarchist opposition and creating a new elite.

Islam will remain as the backbone of the new regime, and nationalism will act as a crust over an Islamist core. Indeed, some among the monarchists have already emphasized that Iran must revert from Alavid Shiism (clerical rule) to Safavid Shiism (rule of the Shah over a Shiite establishment). This regime will continue to exclude most people and parties from participating in Iranian politics. Followers of minority religions will also be poorly treated if not outright persecuted. The regime’s foreign policy and relations with its neighbors and the West will also remain a mystery inside a box.

The democratic world must beware. While the prospect of Khamenei’s criminal plans being derailed is certainly tantalizing, we must always keep in mind that the regime is rotten in its totality. Removing the top leadership without fundamentally redesigning the political environment is not going to stop the surge of radicalism that bursts out of the country. As replacing communists with the ostensibly nationalist rump of the same regime did not solve the problem of the Soviet Union, so will it be in Iran. Only a liberal democracy will normalize the state in Iran and forestall any threats that it might pose to its citizens, neighbors and the world.

Reza Parchizadeh, PhD, is a political theorist, security analyst and cultural expert. He is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.