Iran’s succession crisis overshadows nuclear pact
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.