Death of a president: Short-term stability in Iran could give way to a politically unpredictable intra-hardline feud

Alex Vatanka
Director of Iran Program and Senior Fellow, Black Sea Program

Alex Vatanka
  • President Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday comes at a moment when the Islamist regime is consolidated; but while there will be no power vacuum in Tehran, post-Khamenei Iran suddenly looks far less predictable than it did just a few days ago.

  • Where there might be serious implications is on the issue of the succession process: The death of Raisi, widely seen as a front-runner to replace the 85-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, could open the door to more fierce competition for the top spot among Iran’s hardliners, which Khamenei might not be able to control.

Since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iran has had eight presidents. Until yesterday, the only other president to die in office was Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who was killed in a 1981 bombing, amidst the political violence that peaked in the early years of the post-Shah era. Some four decades later, Sunday’s helicopter crash, believed to have been caused by a mechanical failure, has claimed the lives of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and six others. Raisi’s death comes at a moment when the Islamist regime is consolidated. In short, there will be no power vacuum in Tehran; nonetheless, post-Khamenei Iran suddenly looks far less predictable than it did just a few days ago.

For now, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards will continue to set the agenda in terms of key domestic and foreign policies. Raisi likely will be rather easily replaced by another regime insider who can pose as the people’s elected president. That’s all part of a well-tested election choreography, which is now due to be held by June 28. First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber will, for now, officially oversee the government along with other senior leaders (namely, the head of the judiciary and the head of the Majlis). Ali Bagheri has already taken over the foreign ministry. Both Mokhber and Bagheri are seasoned regime loyalists who can be expected to do as they are told and nothing more.

Where there might be serious implications is on the issue of the succession process: Raisi’s death may make an already fierce race to replace the 85-year-old Khamenei that much more unpredictable. Raisi was, after all, widely regarded as a front-runner for the top job. Over the past decade, Khamenei publicly elevated Raisi and engineered the 2021 elections to make sure the latter secured the presidency. In the last three years, Khamenei routinely defended him even though Raisi’s presidency was arguably the weakest and most incompetent since 1979.

Such investment by Khamenei in Raisi was widely regarded as a sign that he was being groomed for the supreme leadership. With Raisi dead, however, the fight among the various factions in the hardline camp could intensify, and it is hardly certain that even Khamenei can restrain such a churn. If so, this could pose a significant risk to the further longevity of the Khamenei era after Khamenei. In short, on the one hand, the question of who succeeds Raisi will matter very little since his successor will have no more power to set strategic policy trajectories than Raisi did. On the other hand, if his death results in an intra-hardline feud, it could upend Khamenei’s succession plans, whatever they might have been.

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Under growing pressure at home and abroad, Netanyahu remains unbowed

Eyal Lurie-Pardes
Visiting Fellow

Eyal Lurie-Pardes
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency government faces unprecedented fragility after Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz publicly criticized Netanyahu over his refusal to approve a plan for a post-war “day after” as well as growing anger over the issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox into the military.

  • But Netanyahu should be able to remain in power if he can keep his 64-member parliamentary alliance stable, which requires the war to continue without giving up control over Gaza to the Palestinians; at the same time, his coalition retains sufficient political support that if elections were held today, he could likely, at a minimum, block Gantz from forming a stable government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency government is the most fragile it has been since Oct. 7. More than seven months into the war in the Gaza Strip, Israel is still far from achieving its war objectives — dismantling the governmental and military capabilities of Hamas and releasing all of the hostages it captured. And this past week, the two most prominent figures in the war cabinet publicly criticized Netanyahu.

On May 15, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant held a press conference in which he claimed that the Israeli government’s failure to decide on a day-after-Hamas plan for Gaza sabotaged the Israeli army’s achievements in the central-northern part of the strip. Moreover, he warned that this deficiency may ultimately force Israel to either live with Hamas remaining in power or require it to establish a full-scale military regime to directly manage the civilian life of Palestinians in Gaza. Both options, according to Gallant, would be disastrous. Then, on Saturday night, Benny Gantz — the former Israeli military chief of staff and Netanyahu’s primary political opponent — joined Gallant’s criticism and presented the prime minister with an ultimatum: without a clear plan for the day after in Gaza, a return of displaced Israelis to northern Israel, and a pathway to normalization with Saudi Arabia by June 8, he and his party would leave the unity government.

Both Gallant and Gantz have also heightened their criticism of Netanyahu for the latter’s attempt to pass a bill on the drafting of ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens into the military that includes significant loopholes permitting them to opt out. This has become a growing wedge issue in Israeli politics, and the Supreme Court ordered the government to present legislation that would eliminate the discriminatory nature of the general exemption ultra-Orthodox enjoyed by July. Gallant and Gantz argue that Netanyahu’s current proposal, although it was based on Gantz’s own proposal from the previous Knesset, will not allow the military to meet its human resource needs in light of the current multi-front security reality in Israel.

Although the past few weeks have culminated in the most severe political challenge Netanyahu has faced since the beginning of the war, he still has a fair chance of surviving it. He will stay in power if he keeps his 64-member coalition stable. But to do so, Netanyahu notably cannot approve a day-after plan that would transfer control of Gaza to any Palestinian government, because doing so would risk the support of the right-wing settler faction in his coalition. Similarly, he cannot promote a bill to draft ultra-Orthodox that would put him at odds with the two ultra-Orthodox parties politically allied with him. In this context, Gantz’s ultimatum is weak because his party’s exit would not affect Netanyahu’s core coalition, which still holds a majority in today’s Knesset. In turn, Gallant’s statements lacked clear political consequences if his concerns were not addressed.

Furthermore, Netanyahu has already started to bounce back in the polls, after having fallen to his lowest approval rating in two decades immediately after Oct. 7. According to several polls, if new elections were held today, his core coalition would be able to politically block Gantz from forming an alternative government because the latter would have to rely on the Arab-Palestinian party Ra’am to put together a stable ruling coalition — something that would be politically challenging both for Gantz and Ra’am.

Finally, Netanyahu could leverage the pressure from the international community to wind down this growing criticism from his political partners. On May 20, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan requested that the court issue arrest warrants against Netanyahu, Gallant, and top leaders in Hamas for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. If the ICC approves these warrants, as has usually been the case after such requests, it could strengthen the sense of unity in the government and Israeli politics in general. Tellingly, following Khan’s announcement, Israeli politicians across the political spectrum sounded similar, bashing the decision as a “disgrace.”

The Biden administration continues to forge a path toward regional normalization and integration while managing uncertainties with the Gaza war and Iran

Brian Katulis
Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy

Brian Katulis
  • US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with top Saudi and Israeli leaders on a weekend trip aimed at bridging US-Israel divides on the Rafah operation and keeping the pathway to normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia open.

  • Key members of Biden’s Middle East team also reportedly held indirect talks with Iran in Oman aimed at de-escalating regional tensions.

President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan traveled to Saudi Arabia and Israel this weekend in a visit aimed at reinforcing ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure the release of hostages held Hamas, bridging gaps between Israel and the United States on military operations in Rafah, and keeping the pathway for regional normalization and integration open once the Gaza war ends.

The trip had a long list of agenda items, but it was short on immediate outcomes, with no major announcements of breakthroughs on key fronts. More than seven months into the war, the Biden team’s handling of the conflict and wider regional events remains largely stuck in a crisis management mode that has produced limited results. Nevertheless, the team continues to work toward a more proactive diplomatic agenda that aims to offer Israel a strategic choice about its future and new possibilities for regional integration with countries like Saudi Arabia.

But those pathways toward normalization will be blocked so long as hostages remain in Hamas captivity in Gaza and military operations continue. Since Israel began military operations in Rafah in southern Gaza on May 6, an estimated 800,000 people have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Months of diplomacy aimed at achieving a temporary cease-fire and winning the release of hostages have not yet produced the desired results, which remains the central sticking point in the Biden team’s broader ambitions for regional integration and normalization. The simple fact is that none of those wider plans will achieve much progress until the Gaza war ends and Israel signals a greater openness to a two-state solution — a key expectation of Saudi Arabia and other regional partners.

With Sullivan focused on the Israel-Arab front, other members of Biden’s national security team were engaged in quiet diplomacy on another key file: Iran. Brett McGurk, Biden’s top Middle East advisor, and Abram Paley, the acting US envoy on Iran, reportedly traveled to Oman last week to hold indirect talks with Iranian officials about steps to avoid a wider regional escalation.

Tensions have grown in recent months after Iranian-backed militias conducted hundreds of attacks against the United States and its partners in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Jordan — including an attack in late January that killed three US soldiers in Jordan — as well as the tit-for-tat exchange of missile and drone strikes between Israel and Iran last month. The Biden administration has sought to avoid a wider regional escalation and war involving Iran, but it has also not crafted a clear US policy to address the full range of threats and challenges Tehran presents. The death, on May 19, of Iran’s president and foreign minister in a helicopter crash put the country and looming questions about leadership succession back in the spotlight, a transition that will inevitably complicate US policy.

More than seven months into the Israel-Hamas war, the Biden administration has found its overall national security agenda more consumed by the Middle East than it had originally planned. How it navigates the complications and opportunities presented for US policy on both the Arab-Israel and Iran files in an integrated strategy in the coming months will shape how successful the Biden administration is in the foreign policy space in the run-up to the US elections in November.

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Arab League declaration highlights key gaps with US on Gaza war, Israel-Palestine conflict

Robert S. Ford
Senior Fellow

Robert S. Ford
  • As the Manama declaration from last week’s Arab League summit highlighted, while Arab states broadly agree with elements of Washington’s policy on the Gaza war and an eventual resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, there are significant disagreements when it comes to strategies and sequencing.

  • The declaration calls for an immediate cease-fire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and the dispatch of an international force to the “occupied Palestinian territory,” as well as reiterates support for a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.

The May 16 declaration from the Arab League summit in Manama shows that while Arab states broadly agree with elements of Washington’s policy on the Gaza war and an eventual resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, there are significant disagreements with the Americans about strategies and sequencing. A group of Arab ministers had presented elements of the declaration to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Riyadh earlier in May. He rejected them, but the final Manama declaration did not retreat, as it represents the minimum consensus among Arab states on what to do about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Most notably, the Manama declaration calls for an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. By contrast, Washington has not called for a prompt withdrawal of Israeli forces from the coastal strip and implicitly accepts some ongoing Israeli military operations there to try to destroy Hamas.

The Manama declaration also calls for the dispatch of an international force in “the occupied Palestinian territory until a two-state solution is implemented.” The declaration implies such a deployment would include both the West Bank and Gaza. The United States (and Israel) would reject such a force in the West Bank, although Washington is developing a plan for an international force for Gaza with Arab participation. It hopes that Bahrain’s willingness to join such a Gaza force will lead other Arab states, such as Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, which are now very reluctant, to eventually sign on.

The Manama declaration says nothing about post-war Gaza, reflecting Arab capitals’ wariness of being asked to support an indefinite Israeli military presence. For its part, Washington is urging Israel and Arab states to define a plan now.

The Manama declaration welcomes various initiatives to recognize a state of Palestine and secure its full membership in the United Nations right away. Washington strongly opposes recognition of a Palestinian state now and used its veto to block a Palestinian request for UN membership in April.

The Manama declaration repeats the longstanding Arab League backing for a two-state solution, but it does not detail a plan to secure it. It supports Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ call for an international conference and also asks the UN Security Council to pass a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to establish a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. (The latter is notable as this part of the charter allows the Security Council to penalize states violating a resolution’s terms.) Washington, by contrast, has always insisted that only direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, not an international conference or the Security Council, can reach a durable agreement to establish a Palestinian state. Washington will likely try to avoid being pinned down with an explicitly defined timeframe for the “political process” establishing a Palestinian state that the Manama declaration demands. In any case, the Israeli government has expressed no interest in a process to establish a Palestinian state.

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Erdoğan’s “softening” in Turkish politics does not extend to political prosecutions of his opponents

Seda Demiralp
Non-resident Scholar

Seda Demiralp
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for a “softening” of relations between the ruling and opposition parties, as he needs their support for his unpopular belt-tightening policies that include cutting wages and public service jobs.

  • While the softening period may include administrative reforms that enhance transparency and meritocracy in public administration, recent prosecutorial crackdowns suggest restoring judicial independence is not a priority.

On May 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shared a social media message in which he declared that Turkish politics are in need of a “softening.” The post reinforced his May 3 announcement that such a softening had already started, which he delivered after the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Özgür Özel, visited him at the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Özel’s visit was the first such government-opposition meeting in more than seven years, a period that notably overlaps with the acceleration of Turkey’s democratic backsliding.

The timing of Erdoğan’s call for a political softening is doubly conspicuous in that it followed the CHP’s significant victory in the March 2024 local elections, which granted the opposition control over the majority of Turkey’s municipal administrations. This left the AKP in the minority throughout most of the country for the first time since it came to power two decades ago. While the AKP still heads the central government, administrative control at the local level is now divided more fairly between Turkey’s two largest parties.

Given this new balance of power, Erdoğan finds himself dependent on Özel’s cooperation to reach certain policy objectives, thus making a period of softening beneficial for him. Erdoğan firstly needs Özel’s support for the government’s new economic program, which requires cutting state spending. Such belt-tightening policies, including reducing wages and eliminating large numbers of public service jobs, are highly unpopular with voters. Encountering harsh opposition during this period could convince Erdoğan to retreat to his former populist stances. Yet giving in to public pressure in the short run would likely endanger Turkey’s economic recovery before the next general elections and thus, risk his party’s re-election.

Erdoğan particularly needs the CHP’s cooperation in cutting patronage costs. Today, access to patronage networks is relatively evenly distributed between the AKP and CHP. If the two parties had to start competing over distributing patronage, the outcome could prove too costly in light of the government’s new economic goals. Thus, Erdoğan has found himself needing to cooperate with the CHP on cutting patronage arrangements and embracing administrative reforms that will enhance transparency and meritocracy in public administration.

Will the period of softening also include judicial reforms that end politically driven prosecutions of opposition figures? The recent release of four frail generals, previously imprisoned for composing a 1997 military memorandum often described as a secularist soft coup, pleased the CHP’s supporters who considered those original charges to have been politically motivated. But on the other hand, this week’s convictions of members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including its former leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, as well as the rejection of businessperson Osman Kavala’s plea for a new trial over his involvement in the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests, signaled that the softening process will have strict limits.

The heat increases on Taliban Afghanistan over its counterterrorist policies

Marvin G. Weinbaum
Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies

Marvin G. Weinbaum
  • The growing number of terrorist attacks directed toward neighboring states, most of all Pakistan, has raised serious questions about the Taliban regime’s credibility and its tolerance of, if not assistance for, terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

  • Frustration over growing cross-border terrorist attacks has become a major issue in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, leading to border clashes and Pakistani air strikes, as well as calls by Islamabad for outside assistance and greater counterterrorism collaboration with Beijing and Washington.

By the terms of the February 2020 Doha Agreement with the United States, the Taliban pledged that no international terrorist groups would be allowed to use Afghan soil to threaten any other country. In recent years, however, the growing acts of organized violence directed toward neighboring Pakistan, China, Iran, and Central Asian states by such groups have raised serious questions about the Taliban regime’s credibility. Its tolerance of, if not assistance for, such groups in Afghanistan as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), as well as al-Qaeda, seems well established. The most widely feared of the terrorist groups, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), is the only one that, besides its challenge to regimes across the region, also has its sights set on the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s persistent denial of these groups’ presence in Afghanistan or their significance suggests either the regime’s deception in exploiting at least some of them for its strategic purposes or an effort to conceal its inability to prevent them from operating on its soil. In either case, many countries in the international community have lost patience with the Taliban and have increased pressure on the regime to step up its counterterrorism efforts.

No country feels the impact of the terrorist havens in Afghanistan more than Pakistan. In its frustration over growing cross-border terrorist attacks by the TTP and ISKP, Islamabad has taken the strongest measures to impress upon the Kabul government its need to eliminate terrorist networks. There are increasing media reports of border clashes between the two countries’ forces, and Pakistan has launched air strikes against suspected terrorist bases. Pakistan’s military has also declared its readiness to mount major ground operations inside Afghanistan. The latest air strikes, on May 12, led the Kabul government to cancel a planned visit by a Pakistani army delegation to Kandahar to discuss border issues and terrorist crossings.

Islamabad has reached out to international stakeholders for assistance against the TTP and ISKP. Recently, Pakistan and the US concluded their latest round of bilateral counterterrorism talks by agreeing to intensify their collaboration against the two groups. Washington has committed to providing technical and capacity-building assistance in counterterrorism and to maintaining the military-to-military partnership with Islamabad. And in a meeting last week in Beijing with visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed his country’s economic and anti-terrorism security cooperation with Pakistan and urged Islamabad to ensure the safety of Chinese personnel and projects within the country. The Chinese foreign minister agreed to collaborate on a joint effort to eradicate terrorism. Minister Dar used the occasion to criticize the Taliban government for its lack of action against terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan and urged China to use its considerable influence in Kabul to change the government's behavior. Obtaining security assurances from both the US and China is significant for Pakistan as it validates its threat perception.

At the regional level, the picture is more complicated though. For Iran, the US is indirectly to blame for the spread of insecurity and most terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. According to Tehran, the ISKP and other terrorist groups are instruments of the US and part of its post-withdrawal plans to retain a measure of control over developments in the region and particularly to destabilize the Iranian state. Meanwhile, Afghanistan and India claim that the ISKP act as proxies for Pakistan, and Pakistan in turn claims that India and the Afghan Taliban are behind the group’s acts of terrorism. This blame game has broader consequences as well. It largely precludes countries from reaching agreements on joint counterterrorism strategies and undermines regional development plans that would include a stabilized Afghanistan in shared prosperity through economic integration.

Research assistant Naad-e-Ali Sulehria contributed to this piece.

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Photo by AZIN HAGHIGHI/MOJ News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

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