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Hard landing for Iran's President

The president hardly matters, but the supreme leader has one foot in the grave.

Iran's former president

The reports out of Tehran on Sunday were of a ”hard landing” of the helicopter carrying the president of Iran and the foreign minister. The fog and misting rain were so bad that the search drones were useless. They sent them in on foot and learned that Ebrahim Raisi, the president and the man being groomed for supreme leader, had died in the crash returning form a ribbon cutting at a newly built dam.  That Raisi was at some damn ribbon cutting tells you a look the office of the president of Iran. He’s just not that important.

American presidents are a little too important for their own good. And yet the genius of US system is that power transfers are so regular, and power so diffuse, that power vacuums are almost impossible. In centralized autocracies, though, changing of the guard is always tricky. In the Islamic Republic, the trappings of democracy were thrown in during the revolution as a sop for the liberals to support the Mullahs. They have procedures: the vice-president will be installed and elections will be held within 50 days. And the revolution is not going to leave that choice up the Islamic people. Who can run is decided by a nebulous blob called the Guardian Council – and they like a ballot rigged with an obvious choice and field of dark horses.

In reality, power rests with the supreme leader, in this case the 85-year-old Ali Khamenei.  The immediate problem with death of Raisi is the in-house bloodbath that will be triggered from a bunch of true believers all jockeying to become supreme leader. Whether it’s a problem for the rest for the world remains to be seen.

The timing is bad. The regional proxy war Iran started is causing Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia to form closer military ties. Beijing may have crowed about brokering an accord between Riyadh and Tehran, but that was mostly play-acting. The concrete threat from Iran rattles the Saudis more than an ideological abstraction of hating Israel. Domestically, Iran has seen its first in-country strikes terrorist attacks since the Iran/ Iraq war of the 1980’s. And since nothing in Iranian politics is as advertised, conspiracy theories abound throughout the government and the street that skullduggery is afoot.

One popular speculation is the dark hand of Israel: while it does fit Mossad’s MO, the theory doesn’t quite pass the smell test. First, whacking a head of state would be an act of war – inviting fierce retribution - just as the two countries have drifted back to their old, deranged normal. And President Raisi was very unpopular: he’s somehow chapped both the moderates and the conservatives, the economy is in the tank and the rial has lost 55% of its value in the three years of his presidency. The Israelis are clever enough not to stop a rival when he’s screwing things up. 

Until Sunday’s hard landing, the plan was to kick Raisi upstairs to be supreme leader, then groom supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba, as his successor. Without the buffer, though, this looks like a hereditary transfer of power by a revolutionary regime that came to power opposing exactly that sort of thing. Junior is popular with the IRGC – an organization not used to being told “No.” So they will likely cast the dice with Mojtaba anyway and then beat any blow-back out the citizenry. This is Iran after all, and Shi’a Islam exists because of a fight over hereditary rights to Muhammed’s role as caliph.

What's this going to cost?

The second order effect of all this business will – if the IRGC gets their man in - be more regional agitation out of Iran. Until they go too far – probably in Saudi Arabia – and have to be taken out. At that point the unpopular regime will collapse.

And it would be lovely if we could pull this off without anyone going nuclear.


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