In a shocking event on the 19th of May, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi lost his life in a helicopter crash along with his high-ranking entourage, including Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. The President’s helicopter crashed after taking off following the opening of a dam on the Azerbaijan-Iranian border. During the opening of the dam, Iranian President Raisi met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, President Ilham Aliyev, after three years of strained relations between Tehran and Baku. The relationship between the two sides was strained due to Iran’s reaction in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, in which Azerbaijan prevailed victorious over Armenia, as well as Baku’s close relationship with Israel. Moreover, due to the increased tension between Iran and Israel in the aftermath of the Gaza Crisis, it was speculated by media that Israel may have assassinated the president, a claim that Israel immediately rejected.

Although the sabotage possibility in the crash cannot be totally ruled out, the claim seems to be far-fetched as such an attack would be tantamount to a declaration of war at a time when the US is trying to rein in Israel from provoking a wider regional war. The Iranian officials also refrained from pointing out to Israel as the culprit. Instead, the officials primarily talked about the bad weather conditions and some technical problems that may have arisen, given that the helicopter was a decades-old Bell 212 chopper that lacked technological developments like night vision. The US also announced that Iran has asked for assistance in the wake of the crash. Nevertheless, as per the US announcement, the assistance did not occur due to logistical issues. Additionally, the US also offered condolences to Iran. All this information decreases the likelihood of an external plot in the chopper crash.

Nonetheless, it is a valid question why the helicopter took off despite the bad weather conditions, which may have led to its fall onto the rugged territory, resulting in a disconnection with President Raisi. Following Iranian request, Turkey sent its developed ‘Akıncı’ drone, which was later claimed to have specified the wreckage of the chopper. Yet, the Iranian State Television claimed that Akıncı did not specify the exact location of the crash and that the Iranian drones found the wreckage. They also claimed that Armenia sent two helicopters for assistance.

Another claim is that the crash was an intra-Iranian regime power play. Those claiming this count on the fact that two other helicopters accompanying President Raisi reached their destination without facing any problems. The proponents of this claim also question why such high-ranking officials traveled in the same helicopter. This idea also seems far-fetched, as President Raisi has been a part of the regime and was very close to the Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Moreover, although he is known for his career in the judiciary, he was carefully handpicked to be the country’s President by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi was also among the possible candidates for the Supreme Leader post in post-Khamenei Iran. Due to his known loyalty to the regime, in 2021, he was elected in the lowest-turnout presidential election since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Thus, there is little reason to believe the plane crash was an intra-regime power rivalry. Overall, at least for the time being, it can be said that the President died with his entourage in the crash primarily due to sheer negligence. It should also be noted that sanctions have considerably impacted Iran in procuring new aircrafts. Following the withdrawal of the US from the Nuclear deal, Boeing, for example, canceled its planned aircraft sales to Iran. Therefore, Iran is largely unable to buy new planes and helicopters, leading to numerous aviation accidents in the country. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif also put forth that the US sanctions led to the helicopter crash. Some also view this statement as a bid to increase his chance to run in the next presidential election scheduled for June.

What is next for Iran?

As per Article 131 of the Iranian constitution, the First Vice President, Mohammad Mokhber, has become the Interim President for 50 days until the next election. Also, Ali Bagheri Kani has become the caretaker Foreign Minister. The next Iranian presidential election will take place on June 28, 2024. Under normal circumstances, the presidential elections would have taken place in 2025.

Substantial changes are believed to be unlikely in the country’s domestic and foreign policy decisions, as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the IRGC are the country’s main decision-makers. Thus, it is believed that the next elections will be designed to ensure the continuity of the country’s current trajectory, dominated by the conservatives. In the last presidential election, the turnout decreased to 48 percent, a historic low, after many names, including Former Conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Former Parliament Chairman Ali Larijani, who is known to be on the reformists’ side, were vetoed by the Guardian Council in Iran. A similar scenario may occur in this election if reformist candidates such as Javad Zarif decide to run in the presidential elections. The approved presidential candidates will be announced on June 11. Namely, the candidates will have two weeks for their campaigns.

The voter turnout in the 2024 Iranian Legislative Elections was also very low, decreasing to 41 percent. In the capital, Tehran, the turnout fell as low as 8 percent. This trend indicates that the Iranian people have largely lost their belief in the political system. Despite this situation, conservative politicians such as the current Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Interim President Mokhber, or another conservative name like Saeed Jalili are expected to be handpicked by the Supreme Leader to ensure the continuity of the current Iranian path both in domestic and foreign affairs.

If the Iranian people do not see a fair chance of an election, surely turnout will further decrease; this may further increase the discussions on the legitimacy crisis of the regime, given the fact that voter turnout has been regarded as a contributing factor to the country’s political legitimacy since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. It should be noted that Raisi’s death took place in a critical period for Iran. The country has been subjected to fierce blows due to Israeli attacks, primarily in Syria. The Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus and the ensuing direct Iranian ballistic missile and drone assault on Israeli territory, which marked a milestone since Iraq’s targeting of Israel in 1991, seriously increased the tension between the two sides. Additionally, over the past years, the country has faced waves of widespread protests, increasing the legitimacy crisis of the regime. Specifically, during the protests that broke out after the killing of Mahsa Amini, public discontentment became crystal clear in the country. Raisi’s death and the possible contest between different centers of power within the conservative camp for the President’s post, combined with the possible vetoes from the Guardian Council, is likely to dishearten ordinary Iranians and lead them to avoid casting their ballots.