Iran’s succession crisis overshadows nuclear pact

August 14, 2015
Key contender. Iran’s former judiciary chief and current
chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Mohammad Yazdi, in Tehran, in March 2015.

Washington - The July 14th Vienna agreement between Iran and global powers may, at least for a time, contain the crisis over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme but an impending succession battle in Tehran is casting long shadows over the landmark deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
In the absence of a designated successor to the ailing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who reportedly suffers from pros­tate cancer, the nuclear agreement is already contentious among rival factions within the Tehran regime.
Each faction is struggling to pre­pare for the post-Khamenei era and nowhere is that struggle more visible than in the prelude to the February 16, 2016, election to the 86-member Assembly of Experts, or Majles-e Khobregan-e Rahbari, one of the key institutions in the Islamic Republic.
Constitutionally charged with electing the supreme leader, the next Khobregan will have to select the successor to the 76-year-old Khamenei, most observers say. But the nuclear agreement is also emerging as a central debate among current members of the assembly.
Behind the scenes, the major power brokers — whether they have a seat in the assembly or not — will jockey for influence and play a role in building consensus. This was the case after Ayatollah Ruhol­lah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, died in 1989.
At one extreme of the political spectrum, former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, still a powerful figure within the regime, recently declared his candidacy for chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts.
Rafsanjani, who is President Has­san Rohani’s political mentor, has not only emerged as the most im­portant public defender of the gov­ernment’s nuclear diplomacy and the Vienna agreement, he has also become a vocal proponent of nor­malising relations with the United States, for decades a political her­esy.
These initiatives, Rafsanjani ar­gues, are in full concordance with Khomeini’s wishes. According to Rafsanjani, Khomeini was a prag­matist at heart who chose expedi­ency over ideology when accepting the ceasefire agreement that ended the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Rafsan­jani also claims that Khomeini, in private conversations with him and other witnesses — who all happen to be dead — favoured abandon­ing the regime’s iconic “Death to America” rhetoric .
From the same camp there is much speculation about the poten­tial candidacy of Hassan Khomeini, the ayatollah’s grandson, for the Assembly of Experts. The young Khomeini, who has more than once praised the government’s nu­clear negotiations with the US-led world powers, not only enjoys the support of Rafsanjani and Rohani to run for the assembly but also seems to be the duo’s candidate as Khamenei’s successor.
Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi is another potential candidate to succeed Khamenei. Shahroudi, a former judiciary chief, was born in Najaf, Iraq, and represents the descendants of a quarter-million Iranians who were expelled from Iraq in 1979 and who are today over-represented in the Islamic Re­public’s intelligence and security apparatuses. His position on the nuclear deal in Vienna is not pub­licly known. Should Shahroudi ab­stain from claiming the mantle of leadership, Ayatollah Sadeq Lari­jani, the current head of the judici­ary who was also born in Iraq, may throw his hat into the ring. Larijani has placed himself in the centre of Iranian politics by praising Ro­hani’s nuclear diplomacy while si­multaneously criticising elements of the Vienna agreement.
More hard-line opponents of Ro­hani’s nuclear diplomacy are far from impressed by Rafsanjani’s an­ecdotes about Khomeini and even less impressed by the prospect of Hassan Khomeini becoming the next leader of the Islamic Republic.
In March, Rafsanjani’s bid for chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts was frustrated, and Mo­hammad Yazdi, a hard-line aya­tollah and another former judici­ary chief, was elected chairman, defeating Rafsanjani by a ratio of roughly two-to-one.
Yazdi, who has been consistently critical of the nuclear negotiations, is also among the leading candi­dates to replace Khamenei as su­preme leader.
On the margins of the assembly drama, opponents of Rafsanjani, Rohani and Hassan Khomeini are heavily represented within the Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the dominant military force in Iran that wields great economic clout through its vast business em­pire.
These powerful elements have warned Rohani against selling out “the achievements of the Islamic revolution”. In more direct attacks, the IRGC accused Rafsanjani of “claiming to be a revolutionary and a follower of the imam but tries to halt the Islamic revolution”.
The outcome of the overall strug­gle for power within the regime, both inside and outside the Assem­bly of Experts, will influence the selection of Khamenei’s successor. It may also influence Iran’s ability to honour any agreement the US-led global powers reach with the current leadership in Tehran.