Who is Qualified for the Job?

The Battle of Succession in Iran
Khamenei & Khomeini

“I am not qualified for this job”.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said it in 1989 in a closed-door session of the Assembly of Experts who gathered to elect the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini.  Although the Speaker of Parliament Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has expressed that Ali Khamenei was the choice of the founding father, a leaked video from 1989 reveals that Khamenei was selected to be the interim Supreme Leader for a period of one year.

For Rafsanjani, Khamenei’s appointment was a tactical move in a plan to gain more power in post-Khomeini Iran. The interim Supreme Leader promised not to pose any threats.

Rafsanjani’s first move was to push the Majles (Parliament) to eliminate the position of prime minister and transfer the executive powers to the presidency.

Then he was able to convince the Assembly of Experts to elect Ali Khamenei as a caretaker Supreme Leader. By electing an unlikely candidate like Khamenei, Rafsanjani  planned to reduce the  institution of  the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution to a ceremonial position.

Rafsanjani ran for the fourth presidential election in Iran and won indeed. But, Khamenei was a wild card in his plan.

As soon as Rafsanjani assumed office, the caretaker Supreme Leader eclipsed the presidency by forging close ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), thus taking control of the security and political institutions in Iran.

Ali Khamenei’s one-year caretaker mandate has turned into three decades of power.

Replacing an Old Hardliner

Khamenei is considered a hardliner who inclines to the right in his policy choices.  However, he was able to portray a high level of “flexibility” allowing him to re-shuffle internal alliances, to manipulate the transition of power in Iran, and to serve Iran’s opportunistic expansion of influence in the region of the Middle East.

Ali Khamenei found his way to remain in office. However, a Twitter rumor regarding the deteriorating health condition of the 83-year-old leader raise speculations about the looming succession. A month ago, a tweet was sent out that “Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has transferred his powers to his son Mojtaba Khamenei due to health concerns, Iranian Media reports.” As soon as the tweet started to circulate, the press office of the Supreme Leader has denied the claim that caused disturbance among the clergy and Iranian political elite. Yet, in light of this incident, the question of succession re-emerged among experts. The speculation on the succession is certain to be affected by Khamenei’s health condition, as well as the political circumstances. Internally, succession is highly affected by the Iranians' level of satisfaction and their reactions towards the ongoing pressure caused by external sanctions but also by the State’s enduring violence. Regionally, the ideal of a Supreme Leader is determined by Iran’s proxies’ degree of endurance and resilience against the US and Israel partners in the Middle East. And internationally, the relations between Iran and the West, on one side, and between Iran and China on the other side influence the life-span of such regime longing for international recognition and acceptance.

Choosing the Successor

Yet, in the context of these political fluctuations, three different scenarios for the future of leadership in Iran are possible.

The first scenario suggests that the Assembly of Experts will elect a successor to Ayatollah Khamenei. According to the Iranian constitution, article 111 states it clearly that  “[…] in case of the death, resignation, or dismissal of the leader, the Experts are responsible for designating a new leader as soon as possible.” In this regard, the main question would be who will succeed Khamenei?

As tensions continue to mount with the United States, it is more likely to have the position filled by a hardliner who will more likely be adopting confrontational standpoints against Iran’s opponents in the region. Under these conditions, two names emerge; Ebrahim Raisi and Mojtaba Khamenei. Ebrahim Raisi, Chief Justice of Iran, is the most prominent candidate for the leadership of the Islamic Republic. Raisi occupied different positions in the judiciary until he was appointed as its head in 2019. He is also the secretary of the Assembly of Experts. Raisi is a sayyed – descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. He is known for his loyalty to Khomeini and the principles of the Islamic Republic that cannot be fulfilled without the guidance of a spiritual Supreme Leader. Raisi was part of the “committee of death” that committed in 1988 the massacre against 3000 political prisoners by the end of the Iran-Iraqi war.

The second candidate in the son of Ali Khamenei, Mojtaba Khamenei. Being the son of the current Supreme Leader does not give Mojtaba the privilege to inherit the position. The approval of the majority in the Assembly of Experts is required. Mojtaba is highly influenced by his father’s ruling style. He was accused of manipulating the 2009 Presidential elections that caused the breakout of the Green Revolution, a huge mass rally against regime’s corruption with the slogan of “Where is my vote?” The election of Mojataba at this point might be controversial as it defies the basis of the Islamic Revolution refuting all forms of monarchial transition of power.

The hope for a new round of negotiations with the US emerged with the victory of Joseph R. Biden in the American Presidential elections. Under these circumstances, and as an act of good faith towards the US and the West, the Iranian leadership might consider selecting a reformist Supreme Leader. In this case, two names would emerge; President Hassan Rouhani or Hassan Khomeini, the grandchild of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini. Rouhani is known for his inclination towards the West, especially that the famous Iran deal was sealed under his Presidency. Meanwhile, Hassan Khomeini has a charismatic personality and is popular for his bold liberal opinion in the context of the Iranian politics. Khomeini is known for openly criticizing the ruling elite; “we have to fear the day that positions will collapse and roles will change,” (Khomeini 2018). Khomeini ‘s election might induce calmness to the public sphere and restore the legitimacy of the values of the revolution however, it will be challenging for him to re-establish cohesion in such fragmented society.

It is not strange to this region that temporary measures become permanent practices.

Yara Asmar

The second scenario suggests that Assembly of Experts would refrain from meeting under the pretext of “not finding the qualified cleric for the job”. In this case, according to the Article 111 of the constitution, “a council consisting of the President, the head of the judiciary power, and one of the jurisprudents of the Guardian Council, will temporarily assume all the responsibilities of the leadership.” Yet, it is not strange to this region that temporary measures become permanent practices.

The scenario of handing over the powers of the Supreme Leader to a council of leaders is not a breakthrough. At times, the Iranian ruling elite have debated the role of the Supreme Leader and the need to amend the constitution to either abolish the position or hand over the power to the council. By convincing the Assembly to elect Khamenei for a one-year caretaker period, Rafsanjani thought as the new President of the Republic he would be able to influence the Parliament to amend the constitution. Thirty years later, it appears that he was mistaken.

One of the main reasons why Rafsanjani failed in sidelining Khamenei was the leader’s close relationship to the IRGC, the guardians of the Iranian system. This military authority is entrusted in protecting the values of the revolution against all the threats. But, what if one of those threats is the incapability of the Assembly of Experts to identify the awaited leader? A military coup could be the answer to fill the void. The IRGC were never affected by the political transition in Iran. Together with Khamenei, this military group orchestrated political frauds and manipulated elections in different occasions. The IRGC’s prerogatives outweigh the institutions of this so-called democracy. And under the Presidency of Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards grew stronger and expanded their influence over the economic and political activities. As of today, major officers from the IRGC are monopolizing the sectors of telecom and energy in the country.  The current circumstances in Iran serve as a fertile ground for a military coup, yet is it what the IRGC are aiming for?

While the second and third scenarios are not far-fetched options, the first scenario remains the most probable. Both the council and the IRGC are in need of the figure of the Supreme Leader.

Despite the different opinions challenging the role of the leader, his absence will contribute to the disorientation of the Shi’a in the Middle East, considering that the death of Ayatollah Sistani, who is currently 90 years old, may also create a power vacuum in Najaf, Iraq.

While the second and third scenarios are not far-fetched options, the first scenario remains the most probable. Both the council and the IRGC are in need of the figure of the Supreme Leader.

Yara Asmar

Iran’s influence in the Middle East is based on a combination of ideology, military resistance groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, several militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as economic expansion. While the country is struggling domestically to keep its economy afloat, Iran’s government cannot give up its quest to export the values of the revolution and romanticize victory through the image of a strong military protecting the country. And in order to preserve this myth, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution is essential.

About the Author

Yara Asmar is the Regional Strategy Manager at FNF MENA. She is specialized in the fields of Middle Eastern studies and party politics. She is a researcher on Iran and social movements. She published a study in 2018 on regime change and contentious politics in Iran. Yara holds a BA in Communication Arts and Journalism from Notre Dame University- Lebanon and an MA in International Relations from the Central European University – Budapest where she graduated 2018. Yara Asmar started her adventure with Friedrich Naumann Foundation in 2014 at the Beirut based office.