Raisi cold amidst protests following Mahsa Amini’s death

  • More than three months after Mahsa Amini was arrested and detained, Iran’s unrest continues.
  • Rumors about Ali Khamenei’s worsened health conditions raise discussions on the succession of the Supreme Leader.
  • Ebrahim Raisi could lose support from internal power groups if he fails to maintain stability.

Why is Raisi’s heat level cold?

The ongoing protests coupled with further economic and political isolation have severely destabilised Raisi’s administration.

The protests that erupted after the detention and death of Mahsa Amini have increasingly called into question the mandate of the Iranian President. Both domestic and foreign public opinion are turning against Ebrahim Raisi, and so are international actors such as the US and the EU. Although protests have diminished in recent days, demonstrators in Iran vow to continue with protests as millions demand women’s rights. At the same time the growing isolation and sanctions of Raisi’s regime will leave Iran even more isolated and with an even weaker economy than before. This in turn will create greater unrest in the country and instability for the regime. 

On the one hand, Raisi faces a new and stronger wave of domestic discontent. Since his rise to power as Iran’s President in 2021, he has witnessed the growing detachment between his government and a society uneasy about the failing economy and the growing isolation of the country. The President has also faced a hostile response regarding his ultra-conservative approach to women’s rights. In July 2022 he re-implemented a plan called “strategies to spread the culture of chastity”, first applied in 2005. This plan reinforced the compulsory use of the veil, and it strengthened the surveillance and disciplinary actions towards women. 

It was the negligence to abide by this plan, the failure to correctly use the veil according to the morality police, that led to Mahsa Amini’s detention, death and consequent detonation of the protests. Women have before been involved in uprisings demanding rights, namely concerning the hijab rule, the protests after the 1979 revolution, the “White Wednesdays” campaign, or the “Girls of Revolution Street” protests. However, the revolts that started in mid September 2022 have grown in scope to now include the voices of not only adult and young women, but also schoolgirls. 

Raisi’s government has tried to suppress the demonstrations through the use of violence and intimidation. Two months after the riots started, the first protester was sentenced to death for moharebeh, “corruption on Earth”, and four more followed also for being involved in the demonstrations. According to an Iranian human rights group based in Norway the death toll reached 476 in December. Nevertheless, protesters have not been silenced.

On the other hand, international actors have taken a stand and responded to the repression of protests by implementing further penalties on the country. The European Union has continued to add entities and individuals to the already extensive list of Iranian actors subject to travel bans, asset freezes and that are exempt from receiving funds from EU member states. The most recent amendments took place on December 12 2022.

The Morality Police and the Law Enforcement Forces together with the Minister of Information and Communications Technology as well as Iran’s broadcasting service are among those that have been affected by the series of extensions of the designation list. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has also imposed sanctions on individuals and entities following Mahsha Amini’s death, including those penalized by the EU. According to the OFAC the designated aren’t allowed to perform any transaction or deal with the US. 

Western sanctions on Iran and its nationals widen the country’s isolation and consequently decreases Raisi’s international support, as well as that from the more liberal, pro-western social and political Iranian clusters. The measures also have a direct effect on the country’s already fragile economy, and sets Raisi back in his discourse of promoting Iran’s economy, thus affecting the president’s reputation and setting the ground for unsuccessful outcomes in future elections and even the end of his power escalation. Since the President in Iran is directly elected by the people the President’s fall in popularity could directly threaten his hold on power. 

However, in reality, it is unlikely that Raisi will see a direct threat to his power in the coming elections (estimated to be held in 2024), as the electoral procedure in Iran does not maintain democratic nor freedom guarantees. In the last presidential elections in which Raisi was elected the voter turnout decreased as conditions for voting were stricter, plurality was diminished due to candidates being either disqualified by the Guardian Council – directly elected by the Supreme Leader – or withdrawn from the electoral race, and manipulation and pressure to media outlets were applied in benefit of Raisi.

Who is changing Raisi’s heat level?

Protesters are getting the attention of Raisi’s political opposition, and together with the division of loyalties amongst the armed corps, the President’s climb to power is being threatened.

Protests following Mahsa Amini’s death in custody of the Morality Police have shaken Raisi’s administration. Public opinion, both domestically and internationally, has echoed their discontent regarding the President’s rule and conservative tendencies. As noted previously Raisi is unlikely to lose the next elections. Indeed, the Iranian regime has proven itself time and again as very willing to crush domestic discontent. While the protestors will not achieve regime change overnight they are also unlikely to go away as the problems they seek to address are deep-rooted in the state. Raisi will need to contend with them in the future. 

Moreover, in the Iranian government Raisi is facing hostilities from the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Iran’s Parliament. Its speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, was opposed to Raisi becoming head of government, and stood as candidate for the Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces once the conservative electoral camp split. After Raisi’s win, the Parliament has confronted several of Raisi’s decisions regarding internet restrictions, the allocation of foreign funds, and the management of economic ministers. 

This frailty of the government’s unity is furthered by the political opposition, personified in Ali Larijani, former speaker to the Parliament and a dominant actor in Iran’s politics who rejects the idea of the compulsory veil. Demonstrators aren’t alone in their demands, political elites are echoing them and weakening Raisi’s power. 

Raisi, moreover, has another opposition front opened by his rival in the succession line to the Supreme Leader. Although there has not been an official statement regarding this pressing issue, the aspirants are believed to be the current President, Ebrahim Raisi, and the current Supreme Leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei. Although the Supreme Leader’s support to Raisi’s presidential mandate suggests his preferred successor, the opposition’s pressure could undermine Raisi’s chances of winning the race for power. 

For Ayatollah Khamenei, ensuring the permanence of the theocratic government is key. Therefore, if Raisi were to lose his position in government in favor of a more liberal opposition, or failed to maintain order under Islamic law, the Supreme Leader could see him as unfit to fill in his place. Also, one of Raisi’s main supporters is the Irani armed forces, however, the military elite, the Revolutionary Guard, is loyal to Mojtaba Khamenei, which would change the balance of power if the candidates contended for the head of state position. 

Military backing is key in the power race Raisi faces. In Iran, the armed forces are divided between the Regular Army, the Artesh, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).  Even if the first body has a greater strength in number, it is weaker in influence. Its members are forced to be apolitical, and all their proposals and decisions have to go through the Supreme Leaders’ General Command Headquarters, composed mainly of IRGC members. 

The Artesh is bound to have an undivided allegiance to the Supreme Leader, and therefore, Raisi would count on their manpower if he takes up the position. However, his contender in the race for power, Mojtaba Khamenei, has the support of the IRGC as he served alongside them during the Iran-Iraq war. In the past few years, people loyal to the Khomenei family have been appointed for important positions in the Corps, thus weakening Raisi’s possibilities to succeed Ali Khomenei, provided that his passing leads to a power struggle. 

What is driving Raisi?

Raisi is driven by the hope of succeeding Ali Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader as well as by his will to spread “morality”. 

Raisi, who started as a prosecutor in the cities of Karaj and Hamadan, has seen a fast paced ascension to power. The President’s main drive is to succeed Khameinei and become the main authority in the country. Raisi has been seen as loyal to the Supreme Leader and the ideals of the 1979 revolution. However, the failure to succeed in his presidency, to maintain a stable Iran, may reduce his chances of attaining the highest level of power. This in turn makes the current protests one of the main challenges he faces. 

Headlines on Ali Khamenei’s deteriorating health have recently increased due to the lack of appearances of the Supreme Leader during the month of September and the additional hermeticism of the government regarding the issue. Rumors about his health and even about his death brought up the succession dilemma. The Supreme Leader is the main and most important political and religious figure in Iran, and is elected by the Assembly of Experts. The formation of said Assembly is approved by the Guardian Council, in turn chosen by the Supreme Leader, who, therefore, has a great impact on the decision of his successor. 

Raisi seeks to stabilize the Iranian regime with the hope of thereby maintaining Khameinei’s favor and staying in power. In order to achieve this goal Raisi is promoting “moral values” and “chastity”, directly targeting women’s dress code. Iran, as an Islamic theocracy, is ruled under the Islamic law, and its government has the duty of guaranteeing moral values in order to avoid vice and corruption, thus maintaining social and political order. 

The Irani President is a principlist and ultra-conservative with a strong religious background shown in his decision making, and during his mandate he has focused on morality, he has implemented a Hijab and Chastity law strengthening the restrictions on womenswear in the public sphere. He has also reinforced the Morality Police, in charge of guaranteeing the strict compliance with Islamic law. 

What does this mean for you?

The persistent femicides and violent arrests in the country denote a setback in women’s rights and a decline of human rights as the government asks for stricter punishments.

Already before the notorious death of Mahsa Amini, Irani women faced growing repression. Since the beginning of Raisi’s mandate as President, his administration is presumed to have executed 22 women, including teenagers. In July 2022, after further restrictions were announced for women’s dress code, arrests made by the morality police grew, reaching around 15,900 people. After Mahsa Amini’s arrest, repression was reinforced, which resulted in the death of at least 348 protesters, and more than 21 have been charged for offenses punishable with death sentence. Now, more than half of the Iranian Parliament requested the judiciary to firmly deal with protestors, “to teach a lesson to the fighters […] and to bring the divine judgment to justice”.

Cova Moreno

Writer & Editor