What does President Raisi’s Death mean for Stability in Iran and the Middle East?

Thomas Juneau

What has been the immediate impact of the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and what are the implications for Iran’s stability and regional stability?

In the short-term, every Iran watcher agrees that the death of Iran’s President does not have a major impact, nor will it impact the country’s foreign policy in the sense that the President in Iran is not the main player in foreign policy. It’s the Supreme Leader. The President matters. He is not insignificant, but he is far from the most important.

The other thing to always remember is that Iran’s government is heavily institutionalized with the exception of the Supreme Leader. Personalities matter, but they fit into broader institutions. When one personality is gone, the system continues. In terms of foreign policy, in terms of domestic policy, continuity is what we can really expect in the short term.

How could the internal power dynamics within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shift in the wake of President Raisi’s death?

In the short term, not much. Beyond the short-term, what is interesting is that the Supreme Leader, who is by far the most powerful individual in Iran, is eighty-five. He’s had cancer in the past and at this point, his life expectancy can’t be too long. So, informally, there is a race to succeed him that has been ongoing for a few years now. Raisi was assumed to be one of the contenders in that race. Some analysts used to rate him as the top contender. Others were a bit more skeptical, but he was a contender. There was a movement among conservative and hardliner factions to try to line up behind him. So, his death does mean that one of the contenders, if not necessarily the top one, is now gone. So, there will be a lot of jockeying in the next months and years beyond the presidential election to see how the dynamics of regime leadership and succession change.

Raisi was potentially emerging as a consensus candidate among conservative factions in the sense that he’s obsequiously loyal to the Supreme Leader. He’s blindly loyal to the regime, that was his main asset. But he was also not an especially strong character and personality. For a lot of factions within the regime, including within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) but elsewhere too, he was not threatening. So, in that sense, he could have been a consensus candidate loyal to the regime — ensuring continuity but not threatening the position of key regime factions. It’s not clear to me, now that he’s gone, who ticks all these boxes anymore. So, there will be a lot of jockeying to try to see who can emerge now as another top candidate.

For the two races, a lot of names are being thrown around. For the presidential race, which is on June 28th, a number of names have surfaced. We haven’t yet had the approvals of candidates. Candidates can put forward their own names. Some of them have already done that. But then there’s a body called the Guardian Council that is completely controlled by the Supreme Leader that has to approve their candidacies, so we don’t have these answers yet.

Mohammad Qalibaf, who has been mayor of Tehran, senior IRGC officer, and speaker of parliament is a potential name. The risk with him is that he’s a very strong personality. So, it’s not clear that he ticks the box of obsequiously loyal to the Supreme Leader, but he’s definitely one to watch. Ali Larijani, a former nuclear negotiator and speaker of parliament is also a prominent contender on the Supreme Leader side. It is very much an open race at this point and obviously not a formal race yet because the Supreme Leader is still alive.

The other name that was frequently mentioned as a top name in recent years is Mojtaba Khamenei, who is the son of the current Supreme Leader. The Islamic Republic was born through the overthrow of a dynastic monarchy — the Pahlavi monarchy. So, the idea that you could have a dynastic succession now with the Supreme Leader being succeeded by his son is striking. There are some people who think that it could make sense because of the continuity dimension. A lot of analysts, and I tend to be on that side, are more skeptical because of how destabilizing it could be. Ultimately, a key point to emphasis in the short term is continuity – don’t expect change.

One example that you can use to illustrate this is when General Soleimani, who was the head of the Quds force, which is the Special Forces of the IRGC, was assassinated by the U.S. in January 2020. The consequences of that, certainly in the short-term in terms of Iran’s foreign policy, were negligible. He was a dominant personality, extremely charismatic, and extremely connected in Lebanon and Syria and elsewhere where Iran supports non-state armed groups and terrorist groups. In the short-term, his death did not change the country’s foreign policy. Raisi did not have the level of influence, reach, and strong personality that Soleimani had four and a half years ago. His death will not lead to significant changes in the country’s foreign policy.

If you go beyond the short term, if there is a leadership succession, if there is a period of instability, could that lead to some changes in the country’s foreign policy? Not impossible, and that certainly is one scenario. That said, the most likely scenario when the leadership transition comes remains continuity. If there is a period of instability, which is not impossible, what that means in terms of foreign policy is very unpredictable. It could mean retrenchment, that is, the regime retrenches from its foreign policy assertiveness to focus more on domestic troubles.

It could also mean entrenchment. It could mean doubling down on foreign policy entanglements as a way for different leaders to pursue more radical and reckless foreign policies to showcase their revolutionary credentials. It could also mean doubling down on foreign commitments in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen as a way of sending a signal to adversaries – “do not take advantage of our domestic uncertainty right now.” This would be the cost. Signaling that it would retaliate in Yemen or Lebanon and so on. All that to say, continuity is the most likely scenario, but there could be some unpredictability in the long-term.

The current state of Canada’s relationship with Iran

The current state of Canada-Iran relations, unsurprisingly, is not good. It’s a conflictual, adversarial relationship. Over the last few years, Canada has tightened up a number of sanctions against Iran.

One of the tools that Canada has started using is called the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). There has been growing awareness in Canada that transnational repression by the IRGC, and Iran more broadly, is a big problem in this country. Some Iranian officials and their families who come to Canada engage in transnational repression such as targeting of dissidents, intimidation of dissidents, intimidation of the families of dissidents in Canada, or intimidation of their families in Iran. Through the IRPA we are now trying to kick out Iranian officials who are here. I think most would agree, and I certainly would, that it’s far from enough.

If you want to be glass half-full, you can say that more is being done now than two years ago. But there really is a need for Canada to tighten the grip on transnational repression by Iran, and other states. A lot of the discussions on foreign interference have focused on the electoral dimension, for example, China and India intervening in the electoral process. That matters. But perhaps we’ve been neglecting the extent of foreign interference that happens outside of the electoral process.

In Iran’s case, a lot of its interference in Canadian affairs is not in our elections. It’s transnational repression. It’s intimidation of dissidents, it’s pressure on human rights activists here. This looks like blackmailing, intimidation, and threats. As we continue our debates inside Canada on what do we do about foreign interference, we need to give a lot more space to that aspect.

The Canadian House of Commons passed a motion adding the IRGC to an official list of terrorist organizations. Could you explain the significance and likely impact of this development?

The Canadian Parliament recently voted unanimously in favor of a motion in support of listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization. This is a non-binding motion, so it does not automatically lead to that listing. It’s an expression of the House of Commons’ will. It is very important that it was unanimous. It’s not the first time that such a resolution passed. One of them passed six years ago in the spring of 2018. What does that mean? As per the Criminal Code, there is a list of terrorist entities. It includes groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda, and now a number of far-right groups as well. When groups are listed, that leads to a number of measures against them.

To be clear, I don’t agree with Canada listing the IRGC as a terrorist entity. This is not because I like or support the IRGC. We need to do more to counter the IRGC. But listing it as a terrorist entity is not the smartest way to do that. A number of lawyers will tell you that listing the IRGC as a terrorist entity doesn’t work because you’re supposed to list non-state entities on this list, whereas the IRGC is the military of a state. We can let the lawyers debate that, but it is an important point to keep in mind.

What is the smartest way to go ahead? Listing the IRGC as a terrorist entity is an extremely blunt and sweeping tool that leads to potential sanctions against hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been conscripted in the IRGC. To me, it’s a much better use of our scarce resources to use targeted measures, like the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, like the Special Economic Measures act, and a number of other intelligence and law enforcement tools. They can be much more targeted, as opposed to the sweeping ones that, to my mind and to the minds of a number of other experts, are not effective. Keep in mind that the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS), the RCMP, and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) are overstretched. They don’t have a large amount of spare capacity that they can simply shift towards something as broad as listing the IRGC, China, Russia, cyber economic espionage, foreign interference, or transnational repression as terrorism.

This is not a popular argument in a lot of Iranian-Canadian circles, where understandably, the symbolism of listing the IRGC as a whole as a terrorist entity is very appealing. At the same time, we do have to be very mindful of how we best use scarce resources. To me, if we do share the common objective of doing more to counter IRGC activities in Canada, targeted measures are a better and smarter use of our resources.

The Canada-Iran relationship has been conflictual since 1979. The Harper government closed our embassy in 2012. This is a move that I’ve opposed because I am firmly of the view that you have to talk to the bad guys. That’s the point of diplomacy, you need to have a presence on the ground, to monitor, and see what’s going on. To me, it’s been a loss not to have that embassy.

The Liberals tried to reopen that embassy in 2015 when they came to power. They did not succeed. Now that file is closed – we don’t have an embassy and we’re not going to have an embassy for the foreseeable future. This is because of the legacy of this failed effort to reopen, and a number of measures that have been adopted by the Harper government and new sanctions by the Trudeau Government. There is simply no appetite or bandwidth on either side to do this. Some people will find this regrettable; some people will find this to be a positive development. On the Canadian side, our policy towards Iran will have to be done without an Embassy on the ground and obviously without an Iranian embassy here.

Iran launched a massive aerial attack on Israel, two weeks after a deadly strike on its consulate in Syria in mid-April of this year, plunging the region into fairly uncharted waters. What are the implications of the escalation of the Iran-Israel conflict for regional stability and international security?

I’ve been fairly confident in my 18 years of observing Iran that there will not be a regional war involving Iran. By regional war, I mean a hot, direct war between Israel, the U.S., and Iran. There’s been significant violence beneath the level of open warfare — gray zone, hybrid warfare, war between wars — people use a variety of different labels. That happens, and that’s a huge problem, but I’m confident in my assessment.

It’s come close, notably in 2020, after the U.S. assassinated Soleimani, and there was fear of escalation after that. October 7th was another close call. I’ve been cautiously optimistic, and I use the word optimistic with a bit of hesitation here because it’s hard to be optimistic about how this war is proceeding on every side. It’s a disaster. Narrowly speaking, on the front of a Hezbollah-Israel or Iran-Israel, or Iran-U.S. front, I’ve been cautiously optimistic that there would not be an escalation. Why? I think all sides understand that escalation is extremely destructive for everyone. We’re not in the world of mutually assured destruction that we had in the Cold War between the nuclear-armed superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR. At a lesser level, we are in a similar dynamic in the sense that Iran certainly understands that escalation is not in its interest, because in the scenario of escalation, everybody suffers, but Iran loses. That’s clear to the leaders of Iran.

On the Israeli side, there has been a fair bit of push by some in the government and around the government to escalate with Hezbollah to “solve the Hezbollah problem,” and to escalate with Iran. Ultimately, cooler heads have prevailed on the Israeli and American sides. There is an understanding that escalation and direct warfare with Iran would be extremely destabilizing and damaging to the region.

It was very close in April. Israel hit a facility next to the Iranian embassy in Damascus. This was followed by a series of tit-for-tat escalations that culminated in a large-scale Iranian attack on Israel, with about three hundred drones and missiles. Some people will say “Yes, but it was telegraphed in advance, Iran was very transparent, Iran gave Israel time to prepare.” All true, Israel was very ready. Israeli air defences are among the best in the world. Israel can count on the help of allies — the U.S., France, and the U.K. – Jordan helped as well. That matters a lot, and that sent a very strong signal to Iran of the strength of Israeli defences. My cautious assessment from the beginning is that there will not be direct warfare. It really came close to collapse on 14 April. Ultimately, it stood, and we have clearly seen de-escalation.

Since then, things have changed a bit. We’re not quite in a pre-April 14 world now. The baseline has changed because of the precedent of a large-scale direct Iranian attack on Israeli territory, which never happened before. The red lines have changed, and the rules of the game have changed a bit too. I think we still need a bit of time to see the dust settle and the rules of the game clarified. The rules of the game are very important. There have always been rules between Israel and Iran that are sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. Sometimes they indirectly communicate to each other through Egypt, Qatar, or others. They both tried to clarify to some extent where they each stood. These rules have changed a bit, but they still stand.

Ultimately, I don’t want to say that I’m optimistic, because the situation is a mess for many other reasons. Narrowly speaking on that front, I think it will remain broadly stable in terms of no direct warfare.

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