Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rubs his eye before he speaks on television, after casting his ballot in Iran's Parliamentary election, in Tehran, March 14, 2008.
Caren Firouz / Reuters

Over the last several years, the Iranian rumor mill has churned out a steady stream of tales about the imminent death of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 75. Given Khamenei’s advanced age, regardless of whether he is ill or not, a succession may happen sooner rather than later.

The Iranian constitution gives the Assembly of Experts, a powerful elected clerical body, responsibility for hiring and firing the supreme leader. The assembly bases its decision on a number of qualifications: scholarship, fairness, piousness, prudence, courage, management skills, and the “right political and social perspicacity”—“right” being defined by whichever political group is in power. Indeed, the process of choosing a supreme leader is fraught with politics since it presents a rare opportunity for Iran’s various factions to jockey for control. Currently in the mix are Khamenei’s hardliners and ultra-orthodox groups, the traditional conservatives, the moderate conservatives that support President Hassan Rouhani, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his technocrats, and the reformists and the supporters of the Green Movement. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which controls the military supports the hardliners.

The elections for a new Assembly of Experts will be held in less than a year. The 84 seats will be chosen by direct public vote, but the candidates will be pre-screened. Of course, Khamenei has tremendous influence over the results. He will first eliminate undesirable candidates to the Assembly of Experts by disqualifying them through the Guardian Council, which vets the candidates for all elections, except for the city council, and decides who is “qualified.” (The criteria are set by the Constitution, but the Council basically allows those who are deemed to be loyal to the system to run.) Khamenei would have two possible justifications: the candidate’s involvement in the democratic Green Movement, which was born as a response to the fraudulent presidential elections of June 2009, or whether the candidate is a mojtahed, which is a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence who has the knowledge to identify a qualified candidate for Supreme Leader.

Using the first criteria to eliminate competitors will be easy, since Khamenei had previously declared that supporting the Green Movement would exclude a candidate from any high-level position. The Guardian Council, too, has stated explicitly that it would disqualify candidates with such an association. This requirement will rule out potential successors such as Ali Younesi, a senior advisor to President Hassan Rouhani for minority affairs, who on many occasions supported freedom of expression and thought, a main goal of the Green Movement. It may also exclude Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, a reformist cleric who was the former chief prosecutor of Iran and a confidante of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The other criterion is that the candidate be a mojtahed. If candidates are not, they will be forced to pass an exam on Feqh or Islamic jurisprudence, which can be manipulated to disqualify undesirable candidates. The Guardian Council controls the exam and can claim that the person failed. That means Khamenei can easily blackball candidates he doesn’t like. If Khamenei succeeds in using these two criteria to weed out all of the candidates who are not obedient to him, he will have a docile assembly, and appointing a successor to his liking will be fairly straightforward.

A "YOUTH" MOVEMENT

Khamenei has already begun to shape the composition of the assembly. Given the advanced age of many of the body’s leading members—between 79 to 90 years old—Khamenei has taken to encouraging “younger” hardliners to run in the upcoming election. To Khamenei, the most desirable candidates, both for the assembly and as his successor, possess two important characteristics that will ensure their loyalty to him: no involvement in the struggle against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before the 1979 Revolution and no close connections to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Both qualities would give the candidates a certain level of credibility (and therefore, a competitive edge) since they may, perhaps, hold a higher revolutionary rank than Khamenei himself].

Potential contenders for the assembly or as Khamenei’s successor include the judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, Iran’s chief prosecutor Ebrahim Raeisi, and Ahmad Khatami, one of Tehran’s five Friday prayer imams. All of them were born in 1960 (making them 54), are current members of the assembly, and have received some sort of endorsement by Khamenei.

Two other possible candidates are Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, 58, Larijani’s chief deputy, and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, 55, the current Minister of Justice under Rouhani. Both have played leading roles in the crackdown on democratic groups and dissidents over the past three decades. Finally, there is Heydar Moslehi, 57, minister of intelligence during former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term from 2009 to 2013, who is loyal to Khamenei and already a mojtahed.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the fourth president of Iran, and his inner circle also recognize the significance of the assembly elections. Although once partners, over the years Rafsanjani and Khamenei grew fiercely competitive. Rafasanjani and his circle will therefore try to field their own candidates through the iron walls of the Guardian Council. Hardliners, such as Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative Secretary-General of the Council, have said repeatedly that that Rafsanjani will try to take control of the next assembly in order to either have himself elected as the next Supreme Leader, or at the very least, limit the extent of Khamenei’s influence. 

This might sound far-fetched, but it is clear that Khamenei is worried about the possibility. On March 9, 2015, when the assembly moved to replace its chairman Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani who had passed away, Khamenei exerted an extraordinary amount of pressure on the body’s members to vote against Rafsanjani, who was a candidate. It was no surprise then that Rafsanjani lost his bid to Mohammad Yazdi, the reactionary hardliner by a vote of 24 to 47. In 2010, Khamenei also successfully pressured the assembly’s members not to re-elect Rafsanjani as the chairman. He also pressured Mahdavi Kani, who was ill at the time, to run for the post. After Mahdavi Kani reluctantly agreed, Rafsanjani withdrew his name.

But, Rafsanjani did not retreat. He said earlier this month that the assembly “has only one critical moment, and that is when it elects the Supreme Leader.” He added, “I do not need to be the chairman of the Assembly at that critical moment. It suffices to be a member [of the Assembly]. I will be free to express my opinion, and if I want to be influential, I will be.” Then, in a statement for the celebration of the Iranian new year, Rafsanjani said, “Regardless of whether or not I will be around, I am certain that the future of this revolution and the children of our nation will be one of moderation, and the extremists and hardliners will be isolated.” 

Meanwhile, through his speeches and public pronouncements, Rafsanjani has publically distanced himself from Khamenei. Although he no longer enjoys much power, Rafsanjani has a strong public following. If Khamenei feels that Rafsanjani is a continued threat—due to his positions on domestic and international affairs, which have moved closer to those of the reformists and the Green Movement—Khamenei may once again disqualify him from running in the upcoming assembly elections.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is also clamoring to put one of its own in Khamanei’s spot after he passes away, and some claim it may have the necessary influence to do so. This is an unlikely possibility, however. The constitution stipulates that the Islamic aspect of the Republic of Iran cannot be altered. It does not say that members of the Assembly of Experts must be clerics. But it gives the assembly the power to determine the qualifications of the Supreme Leader, and they have always picked religious leaders. For its part, the Guardian Council has set ejtehad, which is the distinguished study of Islamic jurisprudence, as a qualification for the assembly’s members. If the military officers cannot be elected to the assembly, they cannot influence the selection of supreme leader.

IN THE RUNNING

Although Khamenei has thrown his support behind a number of hardliner or ultraconservative candidates such as Jannati and Yazdi, they are too old to be strong successors. That leaves three others in the running.

One is Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Born in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, in 1948, Shahroudi lived there until he was 31 and moved to Iran in March 1979, a few months after the revolution. (Although the constitution stipulates that the Iranian president must be born in Iran, it says nothing about the citizenship of the supreme leader.) Khamenei appointed him as the judiciary chief in July 1999. Reformist deputies in parliament tried to block the appointment by publishing Shahroudi’s birth certificate, showing that he was an Iraqi citizen. But, under Khamenei’s pressure, the issue was kept quiet. After ten years and two terms as the judiciary chief, Shahroudi stepped down in 2009. He is now a deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a member of the Guardian Council, as well as the Expediency Discernment Council, a constitutional body that advises Khamenei and arbitrates disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council. Shahroudi is also considered a Marja’ (a source of emulation for Shiite masses) and is allegedly preparing himself to succeed Khamenei.

The second possible candidate is the judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani. He is a son of Ayatollah Haj Mirza Hashem Amoli, who was born in Iran and was a Marja’ in Najaf, Iraq, before moving back to Iran. Khamenei appointed Larijani, then only 41, to the Guardian Council in 2001. He then appointed Larijani as the judiciary chief in 2009, and re-appointed him five years later. As judiciary chief, Larijani has followed Khamenei’s orders to silence Green Movement supporters and other dissidents. For his obedience, Khamenei has elevated his religious status from  “hojjat-oleslam” (a cleric two ranks below an ayatollah) to “hojjat-oleslam valmoslemin” (a cleric one rank below an ayatollah) to “ayatollah.” Khamenei rarely, if ever, refers to any cleric as ayatollah.

To the ruling clerics, it is important that the next supreme leader has a clerical pedigree, and Larijani does. His maternal grandfather was an ayatollah. His wife is the daughter of a prominent ayatollah in Qom. His sister is married to a grandson of the founder of Qom’s seminaries. His brother, Ali Larijani, is married to the daughter of one of  Khomeini’s disciples.

The third possible successor to Khamenei is Mohseni Ejei. He was in charge of the ideological screening of recruits for the ministry of intelligence from 1984 to 1985 and was the judiciary’s representative to the ministry from 1985 to 1988. From 1995 to 1998, he was a prosecutor for the Tehran branch of the Special Court for the Clergy, a body that monitors dissident clerics. He was promoted to chief national prosecutor in 1998 and served until 2005. Between 1998 and 2002, Ejei was also in charge of the Tehran branch of the judiciary, during which he ordered closure of more than 100 newspapers, magazines, and other publications, and imprisoned a number of journalists. During Ahmadinejad’s first term as president, from 2005 to 2009, Ejei was the minster of intelligence, although he was fired by Ahmadinejad in August 2009 for harboring close relations with Khamenei and taking orders from him. Larijani then appointed him as the country’s chief prosecutor, a post he held until August 2014 until he was promoted to be Larijani’s chief deputy and the judiciary’s spokesman. He is a member of several other governmental organs, and has Khamenei’s complete trust.

POLITICAL CLIMATE CHANGE

Although Khamenei wields significant influence over the election of assembly members and the choice of his successor, several factors can get in his way. If he lives another, say ten years, the political climate could change enough that Khamenei may not be able to adequately influence the Assembly of Experts. Second, the strong social base of his opposition, Rafsanjani, and the fractious nature of Iranian politics may also curb Khamenei’s influence.

Third, if Iran reaches an agreement over its nuclear program with the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) and the economic sanctions are gradually lifted, such events will greatly affect Iran’s internal dynamics. An Islamic Republic that is no longer threatened by the West may be unrecognizable. If the West, led by the United States, builds friendly relations with Iran, it can help improve the state of human rights in the country, supply it with modern western technology, and increase foreign investment.

These changes would also affect the “power game” between the democratic groups and the state, shifting the playing field in favor of the former. Democratic groups in Iran reject the current religious dictatorship and are struggling for a better political system and a peaceful transition to democracy. The idea of a “secular Islamic Republic” has significant support within Iran.

Finally, commentating on the leadership succession will influence the outcome—that is why it is a forbidden topic in Iran. If there is actual debate about the power transition, Khamenei’s candidates may not even be viable anymore since it could lead to revelations about unsavory aspects of the candidates’ past.

STAYING POWER

Although it is difficult to predict at this time who will take Khamenei’s place, it is a fact that the Supreme Leader holds a tremendous wealth of power. For example, in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini sacked his deputy Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, fearing he would “let the liberals take control of the nation and the people.” Khomeini explained that he fired Montazeri because his criticisms of the Islamic Republic on human rights “had greatly hurt Islam and the Revolution and was a grave treason against the martyrs who had spilled their blood to defend the Revolution.” In a letter to the Majles, or parliament, Khomeini wrote, “To preserve the State and Islam, I have sacked the fruit of my life [Montazeri, who was a student and disciple of Khomeini].”

Likewise, Khamenei has been trying to eliminate all possible reform-minded candidates because he understands that his successor will greatly influence the future of the Islamic Republic. He wants the next Supreme Leader to preserve his legacy, not someone who will revise the Constitution, eliminate the post of the Supreme Leader, and pave the way for Iran’s democratization.

  • AKBAR GANJI is an Iranian journalist and dissident. He was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006, and his writings are currently banned in Iran. This article was translated from the Farsi by Ali N. Babaei.
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