INTERVIEW: Iran’s Foggy Future

By Reuvain Borchardt

Rescue vehicles near the crash site. (Azin Haghighi, Moj News Agency via AP)

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties, and formerly a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, discusses the ramifications of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash in the foggy, mountainous region of Varzaghan, in northwestern Iran, May 19.

He is viewed as one of the bloodiest of the revolutionaries. 

As a judge, he presided over an awful lot of death sentences. And he’s also a colorless politician. He’s a hardliner, and he got his position, some suspect, because he was not a threat to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and others. His death will shake things up. 

The presidency in Iran matters. He was viewed as a potential successor to Khamenei, who has been ill. The prelude to the battle over the successor to Khamenei, who has the most important position, is likely to be the battle for president. So it could really open up Iranian politics.

Obviously, we don’t know. But they first called it a “hard landing,” which is a nice euphemism for crash!

President Zia of Pakistan went down in a plane crash in 1988; that was almost certainly an assassination. President Kaczynski of Poland died in a plane crash in Russia; that was probably just bad weather. But whenever you have a senior official onboard an aircraft that has an accident, it certainly makes sense to be suspicious. 

They were flying in a mountainous area, and apparently the weather was bad. So that suggests it could very well have merely been an accident. Nevertheless, looking into that political system — the election in which he was elected three years ago, was effectively stolen; they basically didn’t allow anybody to run against him — so it’s clear that there were people who felt left out of the political process who might very well have wanted to take him out.

Doug Bandow (Cato Institute)

The president runs the government, so that bureaucracy, that machinery, certainly gives him a fair amount of clout. But in issues like international affairs, foreign policy, military affairs and relations with Israel, the final decision is going to sit with Khamenei. And Raisi was part of the hardline establishment. So while they have their factions, you know, he’s at least on the same page as Khamenei. He was not like Hassan Rouhani [president from 2013-2021] or Mohammad Khatami [1997-2005]. Of course, from our standpoint, none of them look very liberal; but within the Iranian system, they were certainly much more reformist and wanted a more open economy and foreign policy. 

So far as we can tell, there were really no policy differences between Raisi and Khamenei, at least significant ones.

For example, the nuclear deal. It’s pretty clear that the current crew has no interest in working to come to an arrangement with the West. Does that mean they want nuclear weapons? We don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if what they want is turnkey capability — the possibility, as opposed to actually making them. But they’re less enamored of, say, economic ties to the West; kind of how a country like North Korea realizes that there’s a price you pay if you open up to the West: who comes in, what sort of information comes in, etc. 

Rouhani and Khatami really did want to have more economic investment from the West, they wanted to have people involved in international business, they wanted international relationships. Their foreign ministers clearly were more worldly than Hossein Amirabdollahian, the foreign minister who died in the crash with Raisi. So the differences are real — though no one whom we would view as a genuine liberal is even allowed to run for office there. When we talk about reformers and hardliners, it’s a restricted spectrum, not one that runs all the way across. 

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attending the summit of Caspian Sea littoral states in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in 2022. (Kremlin Press Service via AP)

It’s certainly conceivable that Mokhber would run for president. He’s a hardliner. Again, of course, these labels don’t mean much across countries, but within that system he’s a conservative. He seems to be close with Khamenei. He’s had connections with the Revolutionary Guard Corps. And he was head of Setad, a charitable organization that was controlled by Khamenei and was set up in memory of Khomeini, the last supreme leader. So he clearly has connections, and he’s genuinely a player. 

Then there’s Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei, who has been viewed as a possible contender for supreme leader when Khamenei himself steps down. It’s conceivable he would want to get into the political process, but he’s generally had a backroom role. 

Probably more significant is Parliament Speaker Mohammad Qalibaf. While, again, nobody in this system is a liberal, he does seem a bit more, I guess we could say “worldly,” than the others, a bit more of a technocrat. And he has good connections. During the Iran-Iraq War, which goes back 40 years, he was a commander in the Revolutionary Guards, and presumably those connections mean something. He was also mayor of Tehran, and apparently had a pretty good reputation — that’s when he was viewed as a bit technocratic; he actually tried to make the city run well. 

He and the acting president and the head of the judiciary are members of a council, and they will help organize an election, to be held on June 28. So he’s going to be in the mix of that. 

Those are the names that have been mentioned. 

Given the fact they effectively rigged the election for Raisi, it’s hard to believe that they’re likely to open it up now. The Guardian Council basically prevented almost anyone else from running — including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was a hardliner back when he was president from 2005 to 2013. He wanted to run again, but he was apparently viewed as a rival by Khamenei, and the Guardian Council refused to even let him run.  So I don’t think you’re going to get a big field. 

They’ll clear the field for a preferred candidate, or, if there is a real election, it will be between a couple of hardliners, both of whom Khamenei views as reasonably acceptable.

Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber in 2023. Following Raisi’s death, Mokhber was appointed acting president by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Hezbollah has a fair amount of independence, and has been very careful here. It looks to me like Iran wants to cause Israel trouble, but Iran does not want a full-scale war between Hezbollah and Israel. And neither, frankly, do Israel or Hezbollah. It’s causing Israel problems; they’ve had to clear residents from towns in the north. 

This is one of those games of international chicken, where you can imagine somebody going too far and the whole thing blowing up. But I don’t think we’re going to see much change with Iran. Iran’s attack on Israel [on April 13, in retaliation for Israel killing Iranian generals in Syria] was done in a way that they figured most of the drones and missiles would get shot down. They thought they had to do something that looked kind of look big, but they also recognized that ultimately, Israel is stronger, so the last thing they want to do is get into any genuine shooting war with Israel. And although Israel has an active war with Hamas and a threatened war with Hezbollah, going to war with Iran would be quite an increase. 

So the Iranians in many ways are posturing, and they’re relying primarily on proxy forces, in places like Syria and in Yemen with the Houthis, who are clearly having an impact on global navigation. So Iran has a lot of foreign involvement, but everything suggests to me that they want to be relevant and have a deterrence, but they really don’t want to start a war. And I don’t think that’s going to change. 

I think the danger would be if you have a power struggle, if you get hardline factions vying against one another, that does open up the possibility that somebody might try to do something to give themselves greater credibility that might trigger a larger conflict, most obviously with Israel, but conceivably with Saudi Arabia — though Iran and Saudi Arabia have worked together and seem to have tried to calm down their relationship diplomatically. 

Iranians follow trucks carrying coffins of the late President Ebrahim Raisi and his companions who were killed in the helicopter crash, during a funeral ceremony for them in Tehran, May 22. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Younger Iranians, the middle class, urbanites and others, hate the clerics. There’s no doubt. The strongest government controls are domestic and  heavily cultural. A lot of these people are kind of like social Christians in America: religion is part of their culture, but it’s not like they actually believe a lot of it. 

Although Trump and sanctions may have tempered some affection for the U.S., on international issues, it does seem that the younger folks did look westward and wanted to have an opportunity to travel and to do business with the West. A lot of these people have older family members who remember the Shah. He was a thug, but it was a much more liberal place, women could dress as they wish, women could work, etc. So most of these people are probably not enthused about spending a lot of money promoting the Houthis, they certainly don’t want to have a war with Israel or America. They don’t get a great deal of satisfaction about sending a big chunk of their money to Hezbollah or Hamas. Nevertheless, they’re probably nationalist. Some of them might very well want a nuclear weapon. The Shah started the nuclear program; we should have no illusions about that. Some of these people, if they think of Saudi Arabia and other countries, might decide they really wish they had one. Think of the Iran-Iraq War — we supported Iraq after it attacked Iran. A million people died in that war. But they still don’t want a war with Israel or the U.S. There are an awful lot of folks in the countryside who are much more conservative, and are more supportive of the government. Some folks blame the regime for sanctions, but a lot of people blame those who put the sanctions on. So exactly how a lot of these people would come down, it’s hard to know, I doubt they’d say that they were really pro-American. But most of the population is not where the regime is. The regime is clearly extreme. Even conservative nationalists in the population probably have a somewhat different perspective than the regime.

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