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What could be next for Iran after President Raisi's death

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What's next for Iran, given news of a helicopter crash in the fog in the mountains of Northern Iran - a helicopter that was carrying the president of Iran as well as the foreign minister and other officials? There were no survivors. So in one blow, Iran lost its top elected official and the man charged with steering its foreign policy. Well, Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, joins me now. Karim, welcome back.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Great to be with you.

KELLY: How much instability might this introduce into a country that was already on edge in a region that was already on edge?

SADJADPOUR: In the near term, Mary Louise, I don't think this is going to destabilize Iran in that the institution of presidency in Iran is not a powerful institution. They didn't really oversee, certainly, Iran's external policies, its nuclear program or the direction of the country.

KELLY: I mentioned he was the top elected official, but clerics run Iran. Yeah.

SADJADPOUR: Exactly. So I think what this does is it introduces great uncertainty when it comes to Iran's political succession. Iran is ruled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is an 85-year-old supreme leader, arguably the longest-serving dictator in the world. And President Raisi was widely thought to be one of two potential successors to Khamenei, with the other being Khamenei's son, Mojtaba.

And Iran is a highly conspiratorial political culture. I think few people will probably believe this was just an accident. And so this introduces great uncertainty when it comes to who succeeds Khamenei because now there's only one person who's really in the conversation, and that's the dictator's son. And that doesn't look good for a system which came to power by overthrowing a hereditary monarchy and saying, we're different than them.

KELLY: It's interesting. I mean, on the one hand, it sounds as though it introduces more certainty if there's only one leading contender left for who will succeed the supreme leader, who, as you note, is well into his 80's.

SADJADPOUR: Well, in theory, you would think that. But in practice, given the fact that Mojtaba Khamenei, the leader's son, is not a known quantity to Iranians, he's not a popular individual and he'll have really no legitimacy, that means he'll be coming to power having to rely on the repression of the Revolutionary Guards to maintain order.

You know, I believe that Iran - there's probably few countries in the world with a greater gap between the aspirations of its regime and the aspirations of its society than Iran. You have a regime that aspires to be like North Korea, a society that aspires to be like South Korea. And Mojtaba Khamenei doesn't have an inspiring vision for Iran. It's more, you know, death to America, death to Israel, mandatory veil.

So he's going to really, in my view, be more of a puppet of the military, the Revolutionary Guards. And so I think if indeed - and, you know, this is still very uncertain. The supreme leader is 85 years old. He could technically live you know, a number of years. But I think Raisi's death - the impact it will have is to hasten Iran's transition to either a more overt military government or, frankly, hasten the implosion of a regime which is, in my view, deeply unpopular and unsustainable.

KELLY: You suggested that this may prompt conspiracy theories, that few Iranians will be persuaded this helicopter crash was an accident. Are you? Do you buy this was an accident?

SADJADPOUR: You know, I believe in Occam's razor, that oftentimes or usually the most obvious explanation is the correct one. And, you know, Iran is a country which has suffered a lot from aviational challenges. This helicopter was a Vietnam War-era helicopter. You know, Iran prides itself on building an indigenous nuclear rockets, missiles and drones program, but they were flying their top officials on a 1979 American Bell helicopter in very poor weather and fog. So I think the explanation that it was bad weather is plausible. But Iran is also a country with a lot of adversaries. And some Iranians, I suspect, will think that Israel or the United States may have conducted foul play or that the supreme leader may have somehow engineered this so his son could replace him.

KELLY: One more question just in terms of what to watch for next in Iran. There will be elections to replace President Raisi. That has to happen within 50 days. What will you be watching for there in terms of how free and fair those elections are, in terms of what that will tell us about the future, where Iran is headed?

SADJADPOUR: Well, Iranian elections are never free and fair, but they have this unique quality of being unfree, unfair and unpredictable. So, you know, they usually are not...

KELLY: A triad. Yes.

SADJADPOUR: ...Honest - exactly. I mean, last time, it was clear that Ayatollah Khamenei wanted to engineer the election of Raisi. This time around, you know, he has options. Does he want to introduce his son to the public as now an elected president? Will he go with, perhaps, a more pragmatic individual who has a background from the security forces? It remains to be seen. A lot of people have their eye on the current speaker of parliament, Ghalibaf, who has a background in the security forces. But, you know, we shall see in the coming days and weeks.

KELLY: Last thing - how should the U.S. tread here? Are there implications here for the U.S. relationship with Iran, or is that also just too soon to say?

SADJADPOUR: I think the death of Raisi doesn't change Iran's ideological prerogatives, which, as I said - opposition to America, opposition to Israel - certainly doesn't change that in the near term. I think the Biden administration's hope is to avoid any type of escalation and conflict with Iran between now and November. But whoever is - becomes the U.S. president, whether it's President Biden or President Trump, one of the top items on their foreign policy agenda will be to counter Iran's advancing nuclear program and to counter Iran's pretty enormous influence in the Middle East in that it's dominating five Arab countries right now.

KELLY: Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment, always a pleasure. Thank you.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.