Power struggle in Tehran ahead of post-Khamenei succession
There is no indication of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei abdicating or being removed from leadership in the near term but the question of political succession in the Islamic Republic is pertinent because the process of ageing is most likely to midwife a leadership change. What will happen after 79-year-old Khamenei passes on?
Few talk about it but the ruling elites have been preparing for Khamenei’s passing for some time. As he underwent an operation on his prostate on September 8, 2014, decades-old rumours made the rounds. The supreme leader, it was said, had prostate cancer.
To quell the rumours, the head of Khamenei’s medical team described the operation as “routine” and somewhat incredibly claimed the supreme leader had only received “local anaesthetics.” Had he gone under anaesthesia, the regime would have been forced to detail the chain of command while Khamenei was incapacitated. By claiming there was no anaesthesia, the regime kept secret the designated chain of command, if there ever was one.
Discussions about who succeeds Khamenei gained ground after the surgery and in the run-up to the February 26, 2016, election to the Assembly of Experts. The assembly formally appoints the supreme leader. Its discussions are accordingly seen to matter.
On December 13, 2015, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former head of the Assembly of Experts, disclosed that a working group in the body was engaged in identifying qualified candidates to succeed Khamenei.
Rafsanjani said: “They are getting ready… and there is a group vetting individuals so that those who are qualified, just in case an incident should take place… [can take over the leadership]. This is the main work of the Assembly.” Rafsanjani’s claim was confirmed by Ayatollah Hashem Hashemzadeh Harisi and Ayatollah Sayyid Ahmad Khatami, both members of the assembly.
Also in the spring of 2016, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its allies, intensified efforts to seize control of the Assembly of Experts. They managed to disqualify Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, and a key ally of Rafsanjani. In so doing, the IRGC countered the magical aura of the Khomeini name and lineage. These could have brought Rafsanjani and his allies back to the heart of the Iranian power structure.
Rafsanjani’s life was cut short on January 8, 2017. The official account of his death blamed cardiac arrest. He was said to have suffered a heart attack while swimming.
However, doubts were cast on the cause of death and mysterious events have been reported. They have given credence to speculation about a purge, leading up to a succession struggle. Rafsanjani, a former president and a great political survivor, could have played a key role in the appointment of the next supreme leader as and when such a choice is made. As of January 1, Rafsanjani’s death appears still to be under investigation by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
With Rafsanjani gone, Iranian President Hassan Rohani, his protege and heir to his political legacy, is continuing the fight against the IRGC. This is meant to secure a role for himself in the post-Khamenei era.
Since December 2017, the IRGC and Rohani have tried to mobilise the public against each other in anticipation of a succession battle. The IRGC and its clerical allies mobilised impoverished shantytown dwellers against the Rohani government’s declared policies of reducing food and fuel subsidies. Rohani’s supporters publicly attacked the IRGC’s economic corruption. They urged protesters to vent their anger against the IRGC, Iran’s costly military engagements in the Middle East and even against Khamenei.
As an actual succession nears, the struggle between Rohani and the IRGC may intensify. The situation may even get out of hand and trigger anti-government protests more extensive than those of December 2017 and January 2018. Such a situation would force the IRGC to intervene forcefully to ensure the survival of the regime.
There is indeed no guarantee that succession after Khamenei will be as controlled as the process that followed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death in 1989.