With the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian regime has reached “a critical turning point.” And with just two weeks until the vote to replace him, it’s important to pay attention to “not only who wins the new presidency, but how many Iranians actually participate in the process,” says USIP’s Robin Wright.

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Laura Coates: We are joined now by Robin Wright, a foreign policy analyst, author and journalist and joint Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. She's reported from 144 countries on seven continents for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, Time, the LA Times, Foreign Affairs, Wall Street Journal, I could go on and on. She also is a recipient of the National Magazine Award for the New Yorker. Her book, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic world, won the 2012 Overseas Press Club Award for best book on international affairs. But she's the author of eight books, also, including The Iran Primer: Power, Politics, and U.S. Policy and The Islamists are Coming: Who They Really Are. She joins us now. Robin Wright, welcome and good morning. How are you?

Robin Wright: Good morning, always nice to be with you. You burn the candle at both ends.

Laura Coates: I do and sometimes in the middle, which means fires everywhere. But thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate you coming on. And I always love to pick your brain on these issues that are so important, particularly in international context. You've got this great piece out for the New Yorker. It's out right now. And you describe what Raisi's death means for the future of Iran. Help us understand and unpack what this could mean.

Robin Wright: Well, after Raisi died in a helicopter plane crash, the Supreme Leader made clear that Iran's domestic and foreign policies weren't going to change. And I think that's true. I think they're kind of locked in more than ever. But the big question is what happens with the future. The former president was the man designated to oversee the most important transition since 1989. The Supreme Leader is 86 this summer, he has suffered from prostate cancer. And the President was expected to kind of oversee that important transition. Iran is this unique political country in that it has, you know, a parliament of President, the traditional levers of power. It has a constitution based on French and Belgian law, but it has an Islamic section with Islamic institutions that mirror all the traditional institutions. And at the end of the day, the Islamic institutions are more powerful. So, the Supreme Leader has the last word. And the President was expected to kind of oversee that transition. And now all the plans about the future are up in the air. Raisi was also expected to be one of the contenders to replace the Supreme Leader. He was a cleric. He was a hardliner, and he was one of the kind of ideologue absolutist who believed in the original principles, rigid principles of the revolution. And now there's no obvious candidate to replace him and elections are happening on June 28. I mean, the campaign is only two weeks long, it's hard for Americans to imagine that.

Laura Coates: The idea first, is there an actual legislated succession plan for the Supreme Leader or is it by selection?

Robin Wright: Well, this is again, where you see the bifurcated political system. Iranians elect 88 senior clerics or juris for the assembly of experts, and their only job is to confirm, pick and confirm and monitor the Supreme Leader. They've only had to do that once, and that was in 1989. People elect this group, and they elected a new round in March, when they went to the polls to also vote for new parliament. And the amazing thing is, the leader of the assembly experts who just retired was 97. And the new Assembly of Experts is headed by a man who's 93. They are all very old, kind of products of the original revolution, considerably hardline in their view, and they will be committed to trying to, you know, confirm, or guarantee that the principles of the revolution are perpetuated, and that they're not convoluted by a growing body of people who want to see a revolution evolve into a normal state.

Laura Coates: They must be laughing at our concerns over 70 something or 80 something year old leader in the United States of America, I mean, on that notion, but how controversial was Raisi? And is there someone waiting in the wings who could either improve or make it worse?

Robin Wright: Well, Raisi was most famous because he was one of four men on a so-called death panel in 1988. That sent 5000 dissidents to the Hanged Man, it was a very traumatic moment. During the revolution, he was a hardliner, he had not been a politician before he had been involved in the justice system. But because he was a hardliner, he was put forward as a candidate anyone, but the turnout was the smallest. Since the revolution, the majority of Iranians did not turn out to vote. And so, what everyone's looking at, is not only who wins the new presidency, but how many Iranians actually participate in the process, because the regime has always looked at voter turnout as an endorsement or question about the revolution and its principles. So, the revolution, which was one of the most important of the 20th century, is really at a critical turning point. And at a time that the gap between the people and those in power has never been greater, at a time that Iranians are living in purgatory. 35%, inflation, the rial was worth, there was three to $1 when I went to Iran in 1973. Today, it's over 6000 to the dollar. So. it economically that's where the primary focus is. So, this is a troubled time, I think the regime and the revolution have never faced so many challenges.

Laura Coates: So, now with the death of this President, what does this do in terms of you mentioned voter turnout, but I do question whether there is a view of fair and free elections there, even with the turnout. But what does this do with the election looming in just two weeks?

Robin Wright: Well, it's a very short process, and the next few days that candidates will register that process has already started. They will be then vetted by a Guardian Council of 12, jurists, again, there are all these Islamic institutions that parallel the traditional political process. And the Guardian Council determines whether their credentials are Islamic enough. And the vast majority are usually disqualified. You asked earlier, and I forgot to answer who are the main candidates. The obvious, politicians include the Speaker of Parliament, who is a former mayor of Tehran, he fought it in the Iran-Iraq War back in the 1980s. There's a former National Security Adviser, very hardline, who was for a while involved in negotiating the nuclear deal with the international community. But the five or six names that are out there are all lay politicians, none of them are clerics. And with only one exception, well, two exceptions. Irans, late presidents have been clerics. And so, one of the big questions is, is there a candidate who will fill the shoes of Raisi in that he was both a political figure but a cleric who might be able to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini. So, this is why all the things that had been planned and orchestrated so carefully so the process was in place. None of that is now viable. The one big question is whether the Supreme Leader's son, Mostafa Khomeini is put forward as a presidential candidate. In other words, creating a clerical dynasty. And the revolution was all about taking power away from one family. So, it will be very interesting to see who the candidates are, and we should know by within a week.

Laura Coates: And finally, we have a minute or so left, unfortunately, but what is this to do with relations with the West? Does the United States have a different tape now that this particular president is not there? Does it change the way they're able to interact?

Robin Wright: I don't think Iran is going to change in foreign or domestic policy. The prospects of new negotiations with the United States seem pretty slim, even though there's some back-channel meetings, secret meetings between U.S. officials from the National Security Council and Iranian Foreign Ministry officials in Oman. That's happened twice this year. But so far, it's been focused largely on ensuring that the war in Gaza doesn't expand to the wider region.

Laura Coates: This has been really helpful. Thank you so much for joining us today, Robin Wright. I'm so glad that you're here. Thank you.

Robin Wright: Thank you.

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