(Bloomberg) -- Out of the fog that claimed the life of Iran’s president, some clarity is emerging about Tehran’s next steps. 

The bad news for western capitals and those Iranian activists pushing for change is that there’s little hope of a relaxation of political oppression, or of the antagonism directed at the US and its allies, according to western officials. They see the authoritarian regime as robust enough to carry on its current trajectory after Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash.

Less clear is how Raisi’s passing changes the calculus for whoever will eventually succeed the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is in his mid-80s. 

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Those considerations, along with renewed questions over the health of Saudi Arabia’s elderly king, mean that the focus has turned to transition in each of the Middle East powers. That adds another layer of uncertainty, and potential instability, to months of regional turmoil triggered by the Israel-Hamas war. 

“All of these developments are a great reminder that nobody controls the narrative, and the discussions about the state of Middle East risk and geopolitical risk more broadly are extremely fluid,” Tina Fordham, founder of Fordham Global Foresight, told Bloomberg Television on Monday. 

Last year, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan famously described the Middle East as “quieter today” than at any time in the past two decades — the week before Hamas attacked Israel and set off the war in Gaza. 

As well as that conflict, and heightened tensions between Israel and Iran, is the fact that the 88-year-old Saudi King Salman is being treated for lung inflammation. That caused his son to scrap his own travel plans and is another complicating factor in Washington’s push for a US defense agreement with Riyadh. That plan, which Iran opposes, would see the kingdom also normalize ties with Israel.

“Could the passing of the king interrupt that flow or perhaps reduce the risk appetite for considering something like that?” Fordham asked. “I am inclined to say no, but it does put a spanner in the works for the diplomacy underway.”

Sullivan was in Riyadh on Saturday for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that focused on “a comprehensive vision for an integrated Middle East region,” according to a State Department readout. He then traveled to Israel, where he reminded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the need for “a political strategy” that can be allied to his military campaign for a postwar Gaza. 

That same day, the Iranian authorities lost contact with the president’s helicopter, which went down in the country’s northwest, also killing Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian. 

While Iran’s supreme leader remains in charge, Raisi’s sudden death comes at a difficult time for Israel as it faces the continued threat of escalation surrounding the war in Gaza, said Joshua Krasna, a former Israeli diplomat and intelligence analyst.

“Being able to manage the crisis we have now was helped by knowing exactly who we’re dealing with,” he said. “The moment things become less clear, that can be a problem.”

For Tehran, the deaths are unlikely to derail its detente with Saudi Arabia that was brokered by China last year, said Hasnain Malik, a Dubai-based strategist at Tellimer. Nor is Iranian support for regional proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Yemen-based Houthi group likely to waver, he said.

What it does do is remove one potential candidate for succession to the Supreme Leader and may increase the probability that Khamenei’s son Mojtaba Khamenei may follow him.

“Khamenei is at a challenging crossroads,” said David Menashri, a professor emeritus of Iranian studies at Tel Aviv University who founded its Center for Iranian Studies. 

“Raisi was the first president who served under him with whom he got along well, he was the first who didn’t tangle publicly with him,” and played a key role in faithfully enacting his policy of moving Iran toward China and Russia, Menashri said. Khamenei now has to find a candidate who will be equally aligned and willing to stay in the shadows. 

The Iranian government, traditionally prone to conspiracy theories, has been clear in its messaging that the crash was due to bad weather, and it has not blamed external actors for the incident. That’s a sign that Iran is giving priority to internal stability and an orderly succession rather than stoking the flames of regional tensions, according to a senior foreign diplomat who tracks Iran. 

Iran’s foreign minister was a capable diplomat who subscribed to the idea of Iran as an assertive regional power. He had close ties to the late Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020, and will be difficult to replace, the person said, adding that there are no signs the internal political debate will be opened to reformers.

That tracks with the US thinking, where two people familiar with the matter said Amirabdollahian was active with proxies in Iraq. The US assessment for now is also that the crash wasn’t an act of sabotage, the people said.

In Saudi Arabia, the king’s son has already been handed the main levers of power and MBS, as he’s commonly known, has run the day-to-day business of the kingdom as crown prince since 2017.

The kingdom’s oil strategy has been dominated for much of the past decade by MBS and publicly articulated in recent years by his half-brother, Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman. For decades, the kingdom has prized continuity and stability, both in its oil personnel and the policies they adopt. That suggests its strategy — predicated on an alliance with Russia and other exporters known as OPEC+, which is curbing supplies to prop up crude prices — would likely continue unaffected.

OPEC’s No. 1 and No. 3 powers in terms of output respectively, Saudi Arabia and Iran are expected to press ahead toward establishing warmer diplomatic relations, since both see the value of maintaining that path, said Hasan Alhasan, senior fellow for Middle East policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They’ve also shielded these relations from broader regional dynamics so the Saudi-Iranian relationship seems to be standing on its own feet at the moment,” he said. 

That’s a development being closely watched by Russia, which has forged deeper ties with both countries since its invasion of Ukraine. “The best option for Russia is to see relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia improving further,” said Elena Suponina, a Middle East analyst based in Moscow. “But there are fears that Israel will interfere with this.” 

A delicate transition period lies ahead for MBS and questions remain over his own successor. But the 38-year-old’s installation may put an end to some political maneuvering for now, Alhasan added. 

“An MBS that’s king is going to be more confident and in greater control and therefore feel less of a need to take strong measures against internal dissent,” he said.

--With assistance from Grant Smith, Ethan Bronner, Michael Nienaber, Jennifer Jacobs, Samy Adghirni, Donato Paolo Mancini, Onur Ant, Sam Dagher, Christine Burke, Ilya Arkhipov and Henry Meyer.

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