It was a day of sombre press conferences, one in Tehran, the other in The Hague, destined to further cloud the future of the entire Middle East.

Monday began with the announcement that Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, whose helicopter crashed Sunday in the mountains of northern Iran, was dead, along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and other officials. Even as that news was still rippling across the region, Karim Khan, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, took to the microphones to announce he was seeking the arrest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant – as well as three senior Hamas leaders – for their roles in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Gaza Strip.

Israel and Iran have been locked in a region-wide shadow war for decades now, one that has escalated into direct exchanges of fire during the 227-day-old war in Gaza, in which Iran is the main foreign backer of Hamas.

Where that conflict, and any effort to end it, goes from here is obscured by the new facts that emerged on Monday. Iran’s President, and more significantly the expected successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is gone from the scene. And the man who leads Israel has been accused of multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Perhaps the power vacuum in Iran will allow for the emergence of a more moderate figure than Mr. Raisi, who oversaw the deaths of thousands of dissidents during his rise to power, and who ordered a crackdown that killed hundreds while he was president. And maybe the war-crimes accusations will finally force the unpopular Mr. Netanyahu to leave office, perhaps opening the door to peace with the Palestinians.

In the short term, the countries’ leaders say they won’t be deterred.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who dictates Iran’s foreign policy regardless of who is president, declared Sunday – even before Mr. Raisi’s death was confirmed – that “the administration of the country will not be disrupted at all.” Mr. Netanyahu similarly warned in advance of Mr. Khan’s indictments that “no ICC action will impact Israel’s iron-clad determination to achieve the goals of our war with Hamas terrorists.”

But fundamental, long-term questions swirl over both countries, and Monday’s events have complicated the way forward for the hard-liners.

With Mr. Raisi gone, the new heir apparent to Ayatollah Khamenei is his son Mojtaba Khamenei. Can the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew the hereditary monarchy of the shahs in 1979, countenance the return of rule-by-bloodline?

And is Israel – which prides itself as the only democracy in the Middle East and advertises its army as the “most moral in the world” – willing to be ruled by an accused war criminal?

The list of seven charges levied against Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant includes the “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare,” “willfully causing great suffering” and “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.” A decision about whether to grant Mr. Khan’s request to issue warrants will be made by a three-member panel of ICC judges.

Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed al-Masri and Ismail Haniyeh were simultaneously accused of eight crimes including “extermination,” murder, rape, torture and the taking of hostages – all connected to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that left more than 1,100 Israelis and foreigners dead and saw the group’s armed wing take more than 200 hostages back to Gaza, more than 100 of whom are still missing.

The accusations against Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant stem from Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza, which the Palestinian Ministry of Health says has killed more than 35,000 people and provoked what the World Health Organization says is a famine in parts of the strip.

While the war rages on, Mr. Raisi’s sudden death brings the little-known figure of Iran’s First Vice-President, Mohammad Mokhber, to the presidency on a temporary basis. An election is due within 50 days.

Few expect that vote to dramatically alter the course Iran has set, one that has seen the regime lean into its confrontation with Israel and the West while deepening co-operation with Russia and China. The country’s 12-person Guardian Council has veto power over who competes in elections and will likely ensure that only those favoured by the regime have a realistic chance at victory. The council smoothed Mr. Raisi’s path to election in 2021 by disqualifying all serious rivals.

More significant is the hole Mr. Raisi’s death blows in plans for the handover of power after the eventual death of the 85-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei. Mr. Raisi’s rise to the presidency “was intended to solidify conformity at the top in anticipation of a seamless changing of the guard,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Now, there’s intrigue about who might succeed the ayatollah, creating the possibility of a power struggle inside a regime that has sought for years to avoid exactly that.

A power struggle is already under way in Israel, where two members of the three-man war cabinet that has directed the campaign in Gaza are now alleged war criminals. If the ICC judges issue the warrants Mr. Khan has requested, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant would be unlikely to travel abroad to any country that is a member of the Rome Statute – a list that includes Canada and all members of the European Union – for fear of being arrested.

The third member of Israel’s war cabinet is Benny Gantz, a political rival of Mr. Netanyahu’s. He said Saturday he would quit the government if it did not formulate a plan for the postwar governance of Gaza – he proposed Palestinian civilian governance backed by a multinational security force – by June 8. Mr. Gantz accused Mr. Netanyahu of putting politics, and keeping his nationalist right coalition government together, ahead of the country’s security interests. He called on Mr. Netanyahu to disavow the idea that Israel should occupy Gaza militarily after the war.

On Monday, at least, Mr. Gantz rallied behind the Prime Minister and accused Mr. Khan of “moral blindness” by equating the actions of the Israeli military with those of Hamas.

Shalom Lipner, a non-resident senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council and a former adviser to several Israeli prime ministers, said most Israelis would react similarly to the ICC’s intervention. However, if the warrants for arrest are approved, that “would drastically complicate Israel’s predicament, dealing another blow to its global standing,” Mr. Lipner said, referring to Israel’s growing isolation during the war in Gaza, which has spurred pro-Palestinian demonstrations around the world and a public spat between Mr. Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden (who on Monday called Mr. Khan’s application for arrest warrants “outrageous”).

More important, at least to Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu, are the regular protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem calling for the Prime Minister to step aside. The Iranian regime will also be nervous that the country’s youths, desperate for change, will use the election campaign to again take to the streets of Tehran and other cities to show their discontent.

The hard-line leaders have vowed Monday’s events won’t cause them to change course. In the short term that means more war in Gaza, and potentially more flare-ups across the region.

But both Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Netanyahu emerge from a day of tumult with a weakened ability to control what happens next.

The Globe and Mail, May 20, 2024