Iran’s opaque politics of succession to Khamenei
Discussion of the looming succession to Iran’s supreme leader, 79-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has little to go on. The sole precedent is 1989 when Khamenei replaced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, charismatic leader of the 1979 revolution and architect of the Islamic Republic.
The constitutional rules are unchanged: Iran’s leader is chosen by the Iranian Assembly of Experts (Majles-e Khobregan-e Rahbari), an elected body that currently has 88 clerics. Khamenei’s rise followed the removal of a constitutional requirement that the leader be a pre-eminent cleric. It was an amendment favoured by Khomeini to facilitate Khamenei. Within a day of Khomeini’s death, careful management by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the era’s wiliest politician, ensured the assembly backed Khomeini’s choice.
However, with the succession to Khamenei, questions abound. What influence might lie with clerics in Qom or leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? How might Khamenei shape the process? How important is theological standing?
Two recent events make these questions particularly important. The death December 24 of Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, 70, removed someone widely seen as front-runner for leader until passed over in 2015 as head of the Assembly of Experts.
Second, Khamenei appointed Sadegh Larijani, 58-year-old judiciary chief, to replace Shahroudi as chairman of the Expediency Council (EC). The EC arbitrates between state institutions, especially parliament, and the watchdog Guardian Council. Shahroudi had held the post since 2017.
The main contenders to follow Khamenei appear to be Larijani and Ebrahim Raeisi. The latter was appointed by Khamenei in 2016 to head Astan Quds Razavi, the foundation that manages the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad.
Other contenders lag much behind Larijani and Raeisi. Assembly of Experts Chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who is also chairman of the Guardian Council, is 91. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a 57-year-old substitute Friday prayer leader in Tehran, has scant administrative experience. Iranian President Hassan Rohani, 70, has moved closer to Khamenei since winning the 2013 and 2017 elections but is resented by many conservatives, who dominate the Assembly of Experts.
No doubt Khamenei wants a smooth succession to encourage stability and preserve the leader’s office as an institution whose powers he has extended since 1989. The size of the leader’s office contributes to a “serious succession issue,” said Farideh Farhi, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii.
“The only person I can imagine managing the leader’s sprawling office with some authority if Khamenei passed soon is Rohani, given his vast experience throughout the life of the Islamic Republic and his ability to stand, if barely, above the factional fray,” she said, “but Rohani is not so young, either, and his selection seems unlikely given current power dynamics.”
By precedent, Larijani is due to stand down in the summer after a second 5-year term as judiciary chief. As well as appointing him to the EC, Khamenei named him a clerical member of the Guardian Council. This gives Larijani a firm standing near the apex of the hierarchy. Rumours suggest Khamenei will appoint Raeisi judiciary chief, although it is unclear if he would also continue as head of the Imam Reza Foundation.
Does Khamenei have a preference? If so, he may resist designating a successor given the need for unity in the face of tightening sanctions and recent protests by factory workers, farmers and teachers.
Khamenei knows he lacks Khomeini’s standing. “For Khamenei to express a public choice and the assembly then pick someone else could be dangerous,” said Saeid Golkar, lecturer in Middle East and North African studies at Northwestern University. “Khamenei’s office and even his family might be the target of a new leader. It’s far more likely Khamenei will try to shape the outcome discretely.”
Hence Khamenei’s influence may remain as mysterious as the rest of the process.
“The Assembly of Experts already has the ‘Article 107 and 109 Committee,’ called after the constitutional articles dealing with the succession, which has been meeting and presumably checking the backgrounds of several candidates,” said Farhi. “Its proceedings are secret. Raeisi is a member of this committee but its chairman is Ayatollah Morteza Moqtadai.”
There is another complication. In the interregnum between leaders, which could be longer than in 1989, the constitution provides for a three-person leadership council. That would be made up of the president, the judiciary chief and one of the six clerical members of the 12-person Guardian Council to be chosen by the Expediency Council. The last, then, could be Larijani.
Farhi said she is wary of predictions in what she calls a “guessing game.”
“Moving Raeisi to the judiciary requires a replacement [at the shrine] who may not be easily found,” she said. “Raeisi also does not have much theological heft. He went to Qom at 15, became a prosecutor at 21 and so has effectively been a state functionary all his life. He is certainly a candidate but I don’t think the choice is an easy one for Khamenei. The only two things that these recent moves suggest are that Khamenei prefers conservatives, as we already knew, and that his options are limited.”