On July 17, 2016, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, turned 77. Rumors that he suffers from cancer have circulated for over a decade, and in 2014, the state-run news agency published photos of him recovering from prostate surgery. Although Khamenei’s prognosis remains closely guarded, the Iranian government is evidently treating his succession with urgency. In December 2015, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and a kingmaker, broached the usually taboo subject when he publicly admitted that a council within the Assembly of Experts, the body that selects the supreme leader, was already vetting potential successors. And last March, after new members of the assembly were elected to an eight-year term, Khamenei himself called the probability that they would have to select his replacement “not low.”
The death of Khamenei will mark the biggest political change in the Islamic Republic since the death of the last supreme leader—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary founding father—in 1989. The supreme leader is the most powerful person in Iran, with absolute authority over all parts of the state. A new person in that position could dramatically alter the direction and tenor of Iran’s foreign and domestic policies.
But those hoping for a kinder, gentler Iran are likely to be disappointed. Since he took power in 1989, Khamenei has steadily built an intricate security, intelligence, and economic superstructure composed of underlings who are fiercely loyal to him and his definition of the Islamic Republic, a network that can be called Iran’s “deep state.” When Khamenei dies, the deep state will ensure that whoever replaces him shares its hard-line views and is committed to protecting its interests.
PAST IS PROLOGUE
When Khomeini died, observers considered Khamenei just one of a handful of possible replacements—and not even the likeliest. A 50-year-old midranking cleric at the time, Khamenei lacked Khomeini’s towering stature. But at a meeting on June 4, 1989, the day after Khomeini’s death, Rafsanjani,