After Lausanne, Iran faces thorny issue of choosing a new leader
Diplomats involved in the nuclear talks with Iran have noted pauses at important points when the Iranian delegation confers with Tehran. All assume this means the office of the “rahbar”, or supreme leader.
That would be Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 75, who is the most powerful office holder in the Islamic Republic: He has last word on war and peace, makes many top appointments and his office has representatives in all parts of government and around the provinces.
But Khamenei’s mortality – aside from his age, he had prostate surgery last year – is just one factor prompting discreet discussions over a succession.
Next February sees a popular election for Majlis-e Khobregan, the Assembly of Experts, the opaque body of 86 senior clerics whose main function is to choose the leader, a function it could well exercise during its next eight-year term.
Until last month there was a front-runner. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, 66, had been acting chairman of Khobregan since Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani fell into a coma in June 2014 before his death in October.
Many in Tehran believed Khamenei indicated a preference for Shahroudi as his successor four years ago by delegating to him the leader’s constitutional responsibility for liaising between parliament, president and judiciary. But a surprise came when the assembly met in March to choose a chairman. Shahroudi withdrew from a vote, leaving Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a former judiciary chief, to defeat former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani 47 votes to 24.
At 83, Yazdi is older than Khamenei and hardly a strong candidate for the succession. “They kicked the can down the road,” Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, told The Arab Weekly. “Neither Yazdi nor Hashemi [Rafsanjani] are real candidates for being leader.
The selection of the leader – or as Hashemi called it in an interview with Shargh newspaper ‘that sensitive moment’ – is going to be a much more complicated process.”
The selection of Yazdi looks like a rightward shift. He has famously condemned music as haram and in 2010 called for the arrest of Rafsanjani for not strongly condemning protests after the violently disputed 2009 presidential election.
Yazdi was also supported as chairman by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who, at 88 and 80, may themselves be too old to be leader. But developments suggest these stalwarts of the “hardline” Resistance Front grouping may want to block Shahroudi and to play a serious role in choosing the next leader.
This will not please Khamenei, who in the 26 years since succeeding the leader of the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has preferred to steer quietly or even await consensus within the political class.
True, Khamenei has broadly sympathised with the conservative camp, especially on cultural matters, and he authorised the crackdown on unrest after the 2009 election. But he has also approved talks with the United States, first over Iraq and then over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Certainly, Khamenei has preferred the conciliation of President Hassan Rohani to the truculence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So for Khamenei, Shahroudi seemed a suitable chairman of Khobregan who would in time become leader: here was someone respected by the clergy in Qom, by parliamentarians, by business and by chiefs in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Why then did Shahroudi withdraw from the election of chairman? His own explanation – that there were too many candidates, originally four – convinced no one.
The real reason may lie in a report, published shortly before Khobregan convened in Seda, by a weekly magazine linked to the reformist and “moderate” camp, based on leaked information that Shahroudi is under judicial investigation for financial irregularities linked to the Red Crescent organisation. Misplaced funds allegedly went to Iraq, where the Najaf-born ayatollah has many followers and activities. The link to the judiciary brings into focus the chief justice, Sadegh Larijani, who while not an ayatollah is a cleric and from a pre-eminent religious family.
So far, Larijani has been talked of not so much as a potential supreme leader but as king-maker who might play the role Rafsanjani took in 1989 when Khamenei became leader.
If Shahroudi is being displaced, then a generational switch seems possible where the top post goes to Larijani or perhaps Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, the 54-year-old Tehran substitute Friday prayer leader. There are many factors – including the surely younger composition of the Assembly after next February and when the succession takes place.
February’s Assembly election takes place the same day as a parliamentary poll that will be keenly contested between supporters of Rohani and his fundamentalist (or “principle-ist”) critics.
In contrast to parliament, whose workings are often televised and range over many aspects of life, Khobregan is rather mysterious. It rarely meets and takes only one decision. But when it comes, that decision will be a far-reaching one, for Iran and its relations with the rest of the world.