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After Raisi, the Unendurable Endures

The Iranian president’s death is unlikely to change regional dynamics, let alone the United States’ “unnatural” relationship with the Islamic Republic.


Last Sunday, a helicopter carrying Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and six others crashed in the mountains of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province. 

As of this writing, it appears this was an accident rather than a state-sponsored assassination. Initially, some assumed that the worst-case scenario was also the most likely—that Israel was behind it. But Tel Aviv was quick to issue a denial, which Iran seems to have accepted at face value. As Negar Mortazavi, Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Policy points out, “It is notable that the Iranians, who are usually very quick to blame Israel for anything and everything, [are] not blaming Israel right now, I think it also forestalls the possibility that this becomes a major kind of regional escalation point in the near future.”


Raisi, a regime hard-liner, was assumed to be among the top candidates to replace Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who, at age 85, is said to be in declining health. Raisi had a long, sordid history, including, notably, as a member of the “Death Committee for Tehran” which, true to its name, condemned between 4,000 and 5,000 political prisoners to death in 1988.  

Asked about this upon assuming the presidency in 2021, Raisi responded, “If a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised.” 

His record as president was unexceptional. Inflation continues to hover around 50 percent, corruption remains endemic, little has been achieved in terms of sanctions relief, and his term in office was marred by his government’s brutal response to the widespread 2022 protests, which led to the deaths of over 500 people. Old habits, it appears, die hard.

“Aside from his hardline supporters who make up about 10 to 15 percent of the population,” writes Professor Muhammad Sahim of the University of Southern California, “hardly anyone will shed any tears for him.” 

In the meantime, a placeholder president has been installed and elections are scheduled for June 28.


Raisi’s record on foreign policy was more mixed. Of course, in Iran, the president is not the “decider” that he is here—that role falls to Khamenei. Nevertheless, Iran’s measured response to recent Israeli provocations demonstrated a kind of maturity in judgment often lacking elsewhere in the region (as well as, it hardly needs pointing out, in Washington).

Appearing on CNN shortly after the crash, Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, noted that “Raisi never really was a driving force behind any major policy.” The consensus seems to track with the opinion of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s prediction that we will probably not “see any broader regional security impacts at this point in time.”

The real questions are with regard to the “who” and “when” of succession—and in this context is it worth noting that on Tuesday, it was reported that Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which ultimately chooses the country’s supreme leader, elected the 93-year-old Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani as its head.

And so, despite the hardliner Raisi’s sudden passing, relations between the U.S. and Iran, which have been on a steady downward trajectory since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nearly a decade ago, will likely remain unchanged. 

Indeed, in the years since the signing of the JCPOA, both sides have reverted to form—with the U.S., under Trump, abandoning the landmark nuclear agreement and Iran, in turn, pursuing a program of uranium enrichment, inching ever closer to nuclear weapons capability, as claimed by the president of the Iranian Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Kamal Kharrazi, earlier this month. How changes at the top—in both Tehran and Washington—might affect a change for the better is anyone’s guess. 

Writing earlier this month in Responsible Statecraft, John Limbert, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who spent 14 months as a hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the final year of the Carter administration, expressed the assuredly sensible notion that “sooner or later, if the U.S. and the Islamic Republic are going to avoid such a lose-lose conflict, the two sides will need to stop shouting and start talking. Forty-five years of exchanging empty slogans, accusations, threats, and denunciations have accomplished little beyond furthering a few political careers and feeding a sense of self-righteousness.”

Indeed, U.S. officials might usefully consider both the costs and benefits of our limited engagement with Iran. After all, as Parsi points out in his riveting behind-the-scenes account of the JCPOA negotiation, Losing an Enemy, such severely restricted relations also restrict insight.

“Even strong U.S. allies like Germany felt that the United States’ understanding of Iran was limited, and that this lack of comprehension impacted its policies,” wrote Parsi. A German diplomat remarked to him, “Just relying on intelligence, as the U.S. is forced to do, can distort things. It becomes all about drama, doom and gloom and never about normal things. Till this day, the U.S. still has an unnatural relationship with Iran.” 

While such a relationship serves the purposes of America’s very own hardline clerics, it does little to advance the true national security interests of the American people.