Caren Firouz / Reuters 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.

Khamenei's Heir

Securing a Supreme Succession in Iran

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

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