The scramble for Iran’s leadership

Corruption aside, “the likelihood of Larijani becoming supreme leader is very low due to his illness.”
Sunday 31/03/2019
Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raeisi (2nd R) attends a session of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran, March 12. (AFP)
Clerical politics. Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raeisi (2nd R) attends a session of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran, March 12. (AFP)

STOCKHOLM - As Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s government struggles to respond to flooding sweeping across Iran, another silent, yet more decisive, struggle is unfolding in the country’s corridors of power -- Iran's future supreme leadership.

In his first official visit to Iraq as president of Iran, Rohani, along with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Shia Islam’s most influential figure.

Conspicuous by his absence from the meeting was Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of al-Quds Force and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s right-hand man in Iraq who has been dubbed as “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East.”

Given the Sistani-Khamenei rivalry and that the former has mostly refused to give audience to the latter’s representatives or envoys, the rare meeting was interpreted as a political snub to Iran’s supreme leader and an attempt by Rohani to consolidate his authority at home in the face of relentless hardliner contestations.

A promotional video posted -- and then deleted -- on Twitter and Telegram by the Rohani government’s official information platform demonstrated the intensifying jockeying for power in Tehran because Khamenei is ageing and speculation about the next supreme leader is rampant

The clip states that one of the three powerful messages of the Rohani-Sistani meeting is aimed at “Iran’s heads” to the effect that “Rohani was received by one of Iraq’s highest-ranking and most influential sources of emulation.” In a similar vein, the first message takes a jab at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

While Rohani has been a core member of Iran’s ruling elite since the 1979 revolution and taken stances to facilitate a “second coming” in the future, he is ill-equipped for succession to supreme leadership.

His biggest shortcoming is arguably lack of support in the epicentres of power, including the IRGC, expected to play a significant role in determining who will hold the top job in Iran after Khamenei.

“He is no favourite in quarters close to Ayatollah Khamenei,” said Sajad Abedi, a senior analyst at Iran’s National Defence and Security think-tank, which is closely affiliated with the supreme leader’s office.

“[Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani’s death encouraged Rohani a bit but he doesn’t stand a chance,” Abedi added, referring to the former president and conservative-turned-reformist politician who suspiciously died January 2017 at a swimming pool in Tehran. Rafsanjani was widely regarded as Rohani’s key political mentor and supporter.

Other contenders have a better chance, however.

In the final days of December 2018, Khamenei appointed Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, former chief justice and brother of parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, as chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, a state body tasked with resolving disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council.

Sadegh Larijani led Iran’s judiciary from 2009-19 and is trusted by Khamenei but his reputation -- as well as his brothers Ali’s and Fazel’s -- is stained by allegations of corruption at the heart of the justice system.

A similar problem bedevilled Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader’s well-known son, because he threw his weight behind former prosecutor of Tehran Saeed Mortazavi, who was sentenced to prison for abuses during the 2009 post-election protests, including the death in custody of protesters. Mojtaba Khamenei’s name surfaced frequently in the media at the time for alleged malfeasance and corruption.

Corruption aside, “the likelihood of Larijani becoming supreme leader is very low due to his illness,” Abedi said. Larijani reportedly suffers from stomach cancer.

“Moreover, the Expediency Council is somehow considered the last political stop for politicians in Iran, in the sense that everyone who ends up there does not usually move further,” Abedi added

Then comes Ebrahim Raeisi, the conservative cleric who was installed by the supreme leader as Iran’s judiciary chief on March 7.

Raeisi, who lost the presidential election to Rohani in 2017, previously served as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a wealthy foundation in charge of managing the Imam Reza shrine and its financial proceedings in the north-eastern city of Mashhad.

The greatest impediment to his ascension to leadership is Raeisi’s domestic and international notoriety for being among the select few who oversaw the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1980s.

While this unique record counts as a source of revolutionary credibility among some hardliners, Raeisi’s leadership would expose Iran to incessant criticism and trouble at home and abroad. The ensuing political vulnerability of such an appointment would be too high for Iran’s national interests.

The last option is the most neglected one: late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 33-year-old grandson Seyyed Ali, who taught jurisprudence at the Qom seminary and recently moved to Najaf for further studies.

Ali is married to the daughter of Seyyed Javad Shahrestani, Sistani’s son-in-law and representative in Iran, and is believed to enjoy his backing and endorsement.

“The [Supreme] Leader [Khamenei] really likes him and they used to meet often before his relocation to Najaf,” Abedi said.

“He was even supposed to serve as an Interim Friday Prayer Imam of Tehran at some point but it was decided that he had better steer clear of politics [for the time being] and instead further his religious education in Najaf, presumably because he’s in the cards for [future] leadership.”

Khomeini does not have a stainless political record from a human rights perspective, though. He explicitly expressed support for his grandfather’s decision to order the mass execution of People’s Mujahideen of Iran members in the summer of 1988 and commended it as a prudent attempt at “crisis management.”

Without the executions, “the country would have not experienced any peace even after 30 years," he told a gathering in Qom in June 2016, on the anniversary of his grandfather’s death, describing the victims as worse than Islamic State terrorists.

Yet, if direct participation in the elimination process does not preclude a politician from ascending to the top judiciary position in Iran, verbal support for it is perhaps seen as a prerequisite for climbing the political ladder to the highest step.

It is not clear who will succeed Khamenei as supreme leader or whether the office or even the regime itself will survive the manifold developments affecting Iranian society today. What is clear is the intensifying scramble for the top spot and its ripple effects in Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policy.