May 21, 2024 | The Free Press

The Butcher Is Dead. What Comes Next for Iran?

The unexpected death of the Iranian president may be the vent that allows a volcano of rage to explode. Reuel Marc Gerecht explains.
May 21, 2024 | The Free Press

The Butcher Is Dead. What Comes Next for Iran?

The unexpected death of the Iranian president may be the vent that allows a volcano of rage to explode. Reuel Marc Gerecht explains.

In the 24 hours after the unexpected death of the Islamic Republic’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, the following things happened: the BBC published a headline about his “mixed legacy,” the UN flew its flag at half-staff to honor him, and the U.S. Senate chaplain offered a prayer for him on the Senate floor. 

Such morally bankrupt responses would shock Iranians who launched fireworks in cities across the country after his death, took to social media to celebrate it, and handed out candy in the street. 

The question is whether the people celebrating on social media, and the ones keeping their disgust for the regime out of the limelight, can convulse the theocracy’s political system. In 50 days, according to Iranian law, the government must hold a presidential election. Will Iranians take to the streets in great numbers?

Never underestimate the Iranian people, who have consistently risen up over the last decade. The last regime-shaking protests were sparked by a young Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, 22, who died while she was in the custody of the morality police in 2022 for not wearing a headscarf. 

Given Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s success last year in violently suppressing those protests—at least 516 people were killed, almost 900 injured, and 20,000 jailed—the 85-year-old won’t be squeamish in crushing rallies that again challenge the theocracy’s legitimacy.  

But Khamenei must be wary because beneath the surface, Iran is essentially a volcano—a large magma pool of discontent always pressing against the security services, hunting for a weak point, a provocation, that will crack the fear that keeps back an eruption. Raisi’s death won’t likely produce a tremor, but whenever the regime’s security services confront the Iranian people, a fissure might happen. 

One thing that won’t change is the Biden administration’s approach to Iran.  

Although Raisi wasn’t the worst mullah that Khamenei could have advanced to the presidency in 2021 (there were a few even more brutal and religiously twisted), he was among those whose evil was clearly documented. Raisi earned the sobriquet “The Butcher of Tehran” when he served as the prosecutor general of the city between 1989 and 1994. He participated in a so-called death commission that ordered the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. And yet, after his “election,” the Biden administration didn’t hesitate to try to reestablish another nuclear deal and some kind of peaceful regional modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic.     

Our strategic reality is this: Iran could have Jack the Ripper as president and Joe Biden and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, would still choose to continue Barack Obama’s policy of engagement. Who the Iranian theocrats are—who and how they have tortured and killed, who they support (the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, the Assad regime in Syria), and who they have aligned with (Russia, China, North Korea)—never intrude sufficiently to alter Washington’s current course. When it comes to Iran, with most Democrats, we are on an endless left-wing “realist” loop where the overriding objective is to avoid war.  

Such timidity has left others in the region more vulnerable and has only encouraged Tehran to push the envelope. Iran’s surging “axis of resistance” is a by-product of American appeasement. So is Iran’s increasing stockpile of enriched uranium and its insouciant, up-yours attitude toward the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts to monitor Tehran’s machinations. It has led to the duel between Israel and the Islamic Republic and it could easily lead to a big regional war, with the U.S. obliged to intervene—exactly what Team Biden has been so determined to avoid. 

Khamenei has a pretty acute understanding of how many Iranians now loathe his rule. Just listen to his praetors, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, dissect the internal threats (increasing secularization, hatred of the clergy, the continuing Westernization of Iranian women, disgust at official corruption), and one can clearly see that he understands the dimension of today’s sedition and the need for a firm, ruthlessly clever hand on the tiller.   

Although many considered Raisi to be the obvious successor to Khamenei, I’ve always thought it doubtful for the simple reason that he really wasn’t clever. Raisi made Khamenei look like a clerical rock star. The supreme leader probably wanted Raisi’s blunt skill set—the Butcher was a ruthless enforcer even before his role in the infamous political prisoner trials of 1988.

That said, I don’t think it’s analytically helpful to try to guess who Khamenei will tap as his successor—assuming he doesn’t die before his plans are in motion. But if Khamenei intends to advance his 54-year-old son, Mojtaba—whose candidacy could generate a lot of opposition from those in the Islamic Republic opposed to dynastic succession—the element of surprise will be essential.  

Khamenei’s cunning has seen him survive for 35 years, but also deprived him of a revolutionary clerical and lay aristocracy to draw upon to replace Raisi because he has prevented independent power bases and networks from gaining too much strength. The supreme leader has tried to make the Islamic Republic institutionally independent of personality (his excepted). He has regularly shuffled senior Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders—though always keeping close his personal favorites, like the dark lord, Qasem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone in 2020. He has demoted or banished from politics most of the first-generation revolutionaries who made the Islamic Republic. 

Now Khamenei may need to seek more support from the younger generations that he has nourished; these are for the most part hardcore, unpolished revolutionaries. Would Khamenei have sufficient trust in a president chosen from these ranks? Would he trust them to follow his orders after his death?  

In the Islamic Republic, there are a lot of competing forces that could be unleashed by Raisi’s death: clerics vs. the Revolutionary Guard Corps, rich clerics and Guardsmen vs. poor ones, cynics vs. true believers, and the people vs. the government. The ruling elite’s greatest advantage is that it knows that they will all go down if internecine strife breaks out. 

Raisi’s death now requires the clerical regime to engage again in a potentially risky electoral fraud—pretending presidential choices exist when all has been arranged by the supreme leader and his minions. The regime’s rhetoric, which now verges on Newspeak, can make even faithful Iranians angry.  

The security services will, most probably, be able to handle any internal dissent. But it would be a delightful irony if Raisi’s unexpected demise led the regime—Khamenei personally—to make mistakes that cracked the fear that allows the theocracy to survive. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Issues:

Iran Iran Politics and Economy