Iran: Iran Struggles to Replace Raisi


July 5, 2024: Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash on May 19. What does mean for Iran’s leadership? Not much, because the presidency is largely a figurehead and the real power lies with the senior Shia clerics of the Guardians Council. The Iranian president took care of administrative matters while the Guardians Council and its twelve appointed members held the real power. The senior clerics of Iran are selected by current members of the Guardians Council to fill vacancies on the council. The senior member of the council, Ali Khamenei, was quite pleased with the work of Ebrahim Raisi. Elections were held on June 28th to select a successor to Raisi.

A new Iranian president does not make much difference to the existing religious dictatorship that has misruled Iran for decades. There is growing popular resistance to the misrule which has impoverished most Iranians. Since late 2017 there have been continuing nationwide outbursts against the religious dictatorship running the country. There was similar activity in 2009 to protest the lack of fair elections. The 2009 protests were put down with force as were the recent ones, with over a thousand dead in 2019 and several hundred since then.

What started in late 2017 was different, with the protestors calling for the corrupt religious rulers to be removed. Some called for a return of the constitutional monarchy the religious leaders replaced in the 1980s after first promising true democracy. Even more disturbing was protestors calling for Islam to be banned and replaced with something else, like Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion that Islam replaced, violently and sometimes incompletely in the 7th and 8th centuries. Right before the 2017 unrest the religious rulers saw Iran on the way to some major victories in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. The optimism turned out to be premature. The good times were supposed to begin in the wake of a July 2015 treaty that lifted the many sanctions Iran had collected for bad behavior since the 1990s. That did not, as many financial experts pointed out, solve the immediate cash crises because oil prices were still low. This was because of continued use of fracking in North America which triggered a more than 70 percent drop in the price of oil in 2013.

Iran made its situation worse by trying to avoid complying with the 2015 treaty while still getting most of the sanctions lifted and for a while that seemed to be working. That strategy backfired when the U.S. accused Iran of violating the 2015 deal and by the terms of that agreement the American could and did withdraw. That meant many of the sanctions returned in 2018. Even before the American action foreign economists believed the Iranian economy wouldn’t get moving again until the 2020s. Now it is going to take even longer, and most Iranians are very angry about that. The 2017 protests continue, but more discreetly because of the threat of lethal retaliation. The senior clerics are worried and openly seeking a solution that does not include them losing power. Few Iranians are willing to accept that kind of compromise. The religious dictatorship is not only hated, but also seen as corrupt, incompetent, and untrustworthy.

This has led to some odd acts of resistance. For example, in late 2022 a young Kurdish woman was arrested by the lifestyle police and accused of not covering her hair properly with her hijab. While in custody the girl died, apparently from beatings. This led to months of protests. The government refused to change its hijab policy and the protests faded away in early 2023 but have sporadically retuned ever since.

There are other complications. Half the population consists of ethnic minorities, mainly Turks, Kurds, and Arabs, and some of these groups, including Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis are getting more restive and violent, for different reasons. Yet the Islamic conservatives are determined to support terrorism overseas and build nuclear weapons at home, rather than concentrating on improving the economy and living standards and addressing the corruption within their ranks.

Expensive efforts to aid pro-Iran groups in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon made some progress and are presented as examples of the ancient Iranian empire being reborn. The government sees these foreign adventures as a way to distract an unhappy population. This ultimately had the opposite effect as Iranians did the math and realized their poverty was the result of all the billions spent on these overseas adventures. At home the nukes are still important because Iranian religious leaders have been increasingly vocal about how Iran should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians believe having nukes would motivate the Arabs, and many others, to bend the knee. The potential victims are not cooperating and can retaliate. The Arabs have been kicked around by the Iranians for thousands of years and take this latest threat very seriously. That has led to a major reform effort in Saudi Arabia with a new generation of leaders willing to take on corruption and go with alliances that benefit the Saudis. This includes openly working with Israel to deal with the Iranian threat.

Selecting a new president for Iran makes little difference to how Iran continues to be misruled by its senior clergy. So far, the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), a heavily armed force of fanatic supporters of the Iranian religious leadership, has attacked and often killed any Iranians who opposed the current government. That did not stop many Iranians from openly celebrating the death of Raisi.




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