Following the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, 63, questions remain over the future of Iran and stability in an already unstable region. Raisi, Iran’s highest elected official since August 2021, and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian were killed in a helicopter crash Sunday. 

Now, Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, has been appointed as acting president.

What does Raisi’s death mean for the future of Iran and how could this affect growing tensions in the Middle East? The director of the Allison Center for National Security at The Heritage Foundation, Robert Greenway, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain. (Heritage founded The Daily Signal in 2014.)

Read the lightly edited transcript or listen to the podcast below:

Virginia Allen: Prior to his work at The Heritage Foundation, Robert Greenway served on the National Security Council and as senior intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Robert is also a veteran of the United States Army Special Forces with six combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rob, thanks so much for joining us once again. Welcome back to the show.

Robert Greenway: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Allen: Iran’s President [Ebrahim] Raisi is dead and I want to begin by asking you to explain what exactly we know about this crash? Do you think it was truly an accident?

Greenway: So, details are a little bit sketchy. What we do know is the president, foreign minister, and two senior staff were flying back from the inauguration of a dam in the extreme northwest of Iran, East Azeri Province, when in bad weather, their helicopter was downed.

It took a while to confirm that the aircraft had in fact crashed and that there were no survivors, which is in and of itself a little unusual and a testament, I think, to the bad weather. There’s no indication right now that anything other than perhaps pilot negligence or aircraft malfunction are the causes, but he has a number of enemies within Iran, certainly.

And in the end, in terms of the significance, obviously, the president’s departure has a significant impact on the politics inside of Iran, but the supreme leader remains in control and in the end, the position of both were really to convey the decisions made by the supreme leader. They had some influence over it, but in the end, the supreme leader remains in charge. So, there should be no change to domestic or external policies.

We can expect an election within 50 days, according to the current Iranian constitution, from a small slate of characters that the supreme leader will vet. So, he essentially picks who he wants to serve in that position.

It all sort of has significance because the supreme leader is close to death. He has been for some time, has been in ill health. He’s advanced in years and he has been preparing the way for secession. There’s only been one secession since the Iranian Revolution of ’79, and that was in 1989 when the current Supreme Leader [Ali] Khamenei took charge. So, this will be only the second transition that occurs.

Raisi was picked as a fundamentalist, as someone close to the supreme leader. He’s known as the “Butcher of Tehran” because in his capacity as minister of justice, he paved the way for sedition to be a capital offense and is responsible for the execution of some 4,000 to 5,000 Iranian citizens for speaking and protesting against the state.

And so, a wildly unpopular figure, a designated terrorist by the United States. And it’s strange to see condolences pour in from European and other international leaders for the “Butcher of Tehran.”

The vice president, as you said, is going to be the interim, [Mohammad] Mokhber handled the finances of the supreme leader and other internal positions.

It’s widely believed that the real winner here in Iranian politics is probably the supreme leader’s son, Mojtaba [Khamenei], himself a figure that is known for corruption, somewhat of a playboy, that the supreme leader has been grooming for increased positions, prominence, and perhaps to succeed him ultimately, and now there appears to be one fewer obstacle in the way.

Allen: The supreme leader obviously sounds like he had a very good relationship with Raisi, or at least Raisi was selected by the supreme leader to hold that position. Now, who does it look like would take over full time in that position? As you said, we have the vice president who’s serving at least temporarily in that role. Is it likely that he’ll stay in that position or would someone else be chosen?

Greenway: It’s possible that he would stay in that position. If the supreme leader wanted to ensure that there was not a prominent figure that would challenge or in any way impede secession, but do rather what the supreme leader wanted, then Mokhber might be a candidate.

Also, the former mayor of Tehran, [Mohammad Baqer] Qalibaf, ran against Raisi in the last election but did not prevail, also continues to be a favorite. And there are a handful of others that like [Hossein Amirabdollahian], the foreign minister, had [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] credentials and might be chosen for their loyalty and enthusiasm in carrying out the supreme leader’s wishes.

So, there’s a small cadre of figures that might be proffered in an election that the supreme leader might select from.

Allen: Explain just a little bit further, if you would, about the structure of power within Iran. Does the president really have any power at all or is it really simply he is just carrying out the marching orders of the supreme leader?

Greenway: All the power that the president has and his Cabinet has extends from the supreme leader. He chooses the candidates, he vets the positions, and so the supreme leader has unquestioned authority over all affairs. And in this, the office of president and his Cabinet have nominal power, but again, nothing outside or independent of the supreme leader’s authority.

The other two principal elements within the Iranian government are the Parliament themselves, which are, again, a group of candidates who are selected and vetted for elections. They are vetted by the other element of the Iranian government that really matters, the Assembly of Experts—a small group also picked by the supreme leader and act at his behest.

And so, those four elements within the Iranian system ultimately—all of them answer to and are determined by and selected by, ultimately, the supreme leader himself.

Allen: How has Israel responded to Raisi’s death?

Greenway: Not at all, and I would not expect them to do so. And it’s interesting that Iran has not yet, but I suspect that they will begin to cast blame over external actors rather than accept responsibility for negligence, as they often do.

But he’s flying in poor weather and the aircraft was a U.S. Bell helicopter that would’ve been provided before the 1979 revolution. So, they’ve been keeping it in the air for an awfully long time, probably not suited for the circumstances. I suspect they’ll blame the United States and Israel at some point, but it’s more likely that an internal culprit, if not negligence and malfunction, were responsible.

Allen: The foreign minister, as we’ve said, also was in that helicopter that went down and was killed. With tension already so high in the Middle East in the region, how do both the death of the president and the foreign minister at the same time affect current tensions in the Middle East, you think?

Greenway: So, ultimately, it will not affect the policies because they have one source in the supreme leader’s guidance and decision. So, there’d be no change in the way things are pursued.

There may be, depending on the circumstances of the accident, either a valid reason or a manufactured reason to create a grievance in which it necessitates an Iranian response. So, the Iranians could exploit this as a reason to increase their activities and response to foreign parties they judge are responsible for the death, so that is possible. We haven’t seen indications that that’s likely to be the case.

I think the more pressing matter for them is to handle domestic affairs and that would probably attract the majority of their attention. So, this may be an internal issue and they may not seek to escalate externally so as to distract from it.

Either are possible. We should know in the next couple of days.

Allen: Do you think that proxy groups would act on this as a reason to carry out more strikes against Israel or ships in the Gulf?

Greenway: Only if Iran decides that’s what should happen. They all operate under the direction and control and exclusively the resources provided. So if Iran wants to distract attention from an internal issue or exploit the accident to escalate tensions because they think they’ve been provided an opportunity, then the surrogates and proxies would do so. If they want to focus themselves internally on solidifying the transition and selecting a successor, then they might be less inclined to do so.

Allen: Is there any specific response that the U.S. should give or not give at this moment?

Greenway: I think this is an opportunity that I fear we will not take to support the Iranian people. As we’ve seen with the rising and nonstop protests that have taken place—not just the women’s movement against the wearing of the hijab, but more broadly against civil and criminal abuses taken against the population and the poverty that they’re experiencing because of economic mismanagement—I think there’s an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate maximal support for the Iranian population.

And again, I don’t think that’s the policy. The White House had reportedly negotiators in Oman just the last week or so discussing the latest round of nuclear sanctions-related conversations with Iran. So, I suspect that they will take an opposite tact and probably try to be additionally conciliatory toward the Iranian regime, which is unfortunate.

Allen: What kind of message does that send to Iran and the world?

Greenway: Well, it sends exactly the wrong message that we are standing with a terrorist organization, the sponsors of regional terrorism, our enemies and the enemies of Israel and the free world and the Iranian people, rather than siding with the Iranian people in their play against the tyrannical and the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism in the form of the Iranian regime.

Allen: Rob, I want to get your thoughts on another piece of news that we just saw come out. The International Criminal Court is seeking to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Your response to this?

Greenway: Well, this is an unfortunate, but predictable result of a rogue international organization that the United States is not a party to, the Rome agreement that established it, and it’s validating the reason why in that it is acting prejudicial, it is acting politically, and is acting, in many ways, against the United States, who had attempted and has launched investigations into the actions of our armed service members in Afghanistan, and now is doing so against the Israelis, in this case against the prime minister and the minister of defense, Netanyahu and [Yoav] Gallant, respectively.

And this again validates our refusal to recognize the court because it takes increasingly political cases and ignores wider human rights abuses. And so, we nor Israel recognize the court, but this complicates matters and I suspect the current administration is probably going to allow this with little or no opposition. But I think Congress may take up additional actions depending on their schedule because of the outrage of investigating our closest ally.

Allen: You said this complicates matters. How so? Would an issuing of an arrest warrant against Netanyahu actually hold any real weight or authority?

Greenway: Well, within the court that neither Israel nor the United States recognize, no. But within member states that are signatories to the Rome convention and to the court, it might impede their travel and transit as a result of the investigation, depending on how it proceeds.

And I think that’s the goal, certainly, for the Palestinian organizations, which are increasingly finding favorable terrain for them to combat Israel, not on Gaza on the ground, but rather in the U.N., in Turtle Bay, and in the International Criminal Court in Brussels. This is the problem.

Allen: Rob, any final thoughts on what we might see in the coming days and weeks as the war between Hamas and Israel continues and as we continue to watch the situation in Iran unfold?

Greenway: Yeah, look, one thing should be clear is that bad policies get bad results. And I think that the appeasement of Iran has led us to a point where we’ve gotten into a regional conflict and that threatens Israel and our armed services in the region, but it also threatens global shipping and global energy markets, which are exacerbating the costs on everyday Americans. And so, it’s the other side of the world, but it impacts the price of all commodities in the United States and therefore impacts every American. And until those policies are reversed, we’ll continue to feel the results of it.

Allen: Rob, thanks for your time today. We really appreciate it.

Greenway: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.