Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters A government supporter holds a poster with images of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (R) and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a protest in Tehran, December 30, 2009.

Iran's Supreme Politics

The Battle To Succeed Khamenei Heats Up

On March 10, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with a group of elderly clerics from the Assembly of Experts—Iran’s equivalent to the Vatican’s College of Cardinals. A few days earlier, on February 26, elections for the body had seen household-name hardline candidates routed and the number of moderates in the assembly nearly triple. That morning, sitting in a small hall with whitewashed walls, an animated Khamenei had something particular in mind: he wanted to speak about his successor.

The assembly, established in 1983 and made up of 88 senior Shia clerics, was created with two key functions in mind: to oversee the leader’s performance and to choose his successor. This morning, they were convened to discuss the latter. The 77-year-old Khamenei turned to his audience and made his basic, but powerful pitch to the clerics, including those reelected for another eight-year term. I will not be around forever, he said, but “a supreme leader has to be a revolutionary.” “Don’t,” Khamenei implored, “be bashful” when it comes to choosing the next man.

The loaded remark, and the insinuation that some of the gathered figures lack a revolutionary zest, was a shot at the man sitting next to Khamenei, the 81-year old Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. The two men, friends and rivals for more than half a century, had cut a historic deal in 1989, the last time Iran had to go through a succession process, to propel Khamenei to the top job.

But today they stand for two very different visions for Iran, and there is slim hope of another deal between them. In other words, an unprecedented tug-of-war might be in the offing; Khamenei and Rafsanjani, symbolizing the status quo versus the promise of reform, each see the succession process as a both a pivotal juncture for their country and their individual legacies.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, 75 miles south of Tehran, October 19, 2010.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, 75 miles south of Tehran, October 19, 2010.

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