Succession of the Supreme Leader in Iran: Influential Groups and Possible Scenarios
Between late 2017 and early 2018, Iran witnessed its biggest wave of popular unrest since the suppression of the opposition Green Movement following the disputed presidential elections of 2009. Despite unsettling the political elite in the Islamic Republic, these latest protests have not been of sufficient magnitude to threaten the clerics’ grip on power.
On the contrary, they confirm that Iran’s coercive apparatus maintains both capable and determined to suppress any viable political opposition. In other words, unless more substantial, persistent mass protests return to the streets, grassroots popular mobilizations alone will not be enough to wrest power from the clerics and their partners, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In the absence of any major change in this equation, two important considerations concerning Iran's future will endure: first, reform initiated from above and among political elites is the safest, most stable way for the Islamic republic to undertake the transition to a more ‘normal’ and perhaps even democratic regime; second, such a process is impossible without the support of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei who, despite speculation to the contrary in recent months, remains the strongest individual in Iran's political structure.
Given that Khamenei has consistently supported the agendas of the conservatives and hard-liners and worked against any form of democratization or ‘normalization’ of the Islamic Republic, the likelihood of change occurring from the top will only increase following his departure from power.
Indeed, the succession of a new supreme leader is becoming an increasingly viable possibility. Khamenei will turn 79 in 2018, and reportedly suffers from some health issues. The presence of a mechanism to govern a smooth succession in the event of his death will be instrumental in determining the survival of the Islamic Republic model.
Influential groups in the selection of the next Supreme Leader
An examination of the circumstances in which Ayatollah Khamenei was selected as supreme leader in 1989 illustrates the importance of informal politics and competition for power in the selection process.
A recently leaked video concerning Khamenei’s selection on June 3, 1989, shows how a small group of clerics – most importantly Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament at the time, and Khomeini’s son, Ahmad – influenced and directed the process of selection in his favor.
Being the most important political elites in Iran during the first decade following the revolution (1979–1989), the clerics were in effect the only group inside the regime that could influence the decision of the Assembly of Experts.
The situation today is far more complicated, however, as the balance of power has shifted over the past three decades and the clerics no longer enjoy unrivalled domination of the political process; now, the political battle would be between three groups – the hardline clergy, the IRGC and those loyal to President Rouhani – each of which would do everything in their power to influence the selection process.
On this basis, we may categorize the members of the Assembly of Experts – who are empowered by the constitution to choose the Supreme Leader – into three groups. Some are allied to the hardline clerical establishment (Howzeh) in Qom, while the others are either linked to the government bureaucracy in Tehran (Rouhani’s team) or to the IRGC.
President Rouhani represents the clerical–technocratic alliance in the Assembly, whilst Ebrahim Raisi – the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi and the prosecutor of the Special Court of the Clergy – is the figurehead of the clerical–military/security alliance to which Khamenei is most closely associated.
Possible scenarios for Khamenei’s succession
Assuming a smooth transition, and based on the alliance between these groups, three main scenarios for succession are possible:
Howzeh–security nexus: Maintaining the status quo
In this scenario, the members of the Assembly will select one of the senior clerics of the clerical–military/security alliance who is acceptable to both the IRGC and Khamenei’s office.
Since the core membership of the Assembly comprises radical clerics close to Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC, they have the power to coerce other members to select a close ally.
In this scenario, the new leader will be radical, like his predecessor, and will be supported by fellow radicals in the clergy and the IRGC. This scenario will become more likely if the Assembly chooses Khamenei’s designated successor while he is still alive (Khamenei is a politician with an interest in institution-building and will most probably choose a successor before he dies). He has already stated that his successor should be a “revolutionary” and has asked members of the Assembly of Experts not to be “timid” when choosing the next Supreme Leader.
His office – at the top of Iran’s “deep state” – is likely to support a hardliner, and both the radical clergy in seminaries in Qom and elsewhere and the IRGC leadership are likely to back the same candidate. Among these hardliners, the most important candidate is Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi.
Although Raisi’s defeat in the 2017 presidential election was viewed as a negative in his bid for leadership, it is worth remembering that his supporters in the deep state managed to mobilize some 16 million votes for him.
Since he was previously a marginal public figure in the eyes of the electorate, the millions who voted for Raisi are a clear reflection of the ability of the clerical–military/security grouping to bring out the vote, regardless of who they field as their candidate.
The preferences of ordinary voters are not a significant concern for the members of the Assembly; notably in this context, in May 2016 they chose Ayatollah Jannati as Chairman of the Assembly, despite that fact that he received the smallest share of the public vote in Tehran, the district of his candidacy.
Another advantage Raisi has over his rivals stems from his position as the prosecutor of the Special Court of the Clergy, which is the main body for the intimidation and suppression of dissident clergy.
Clerical–technocrat nexus: Transition to pragmatism
If the clergy–technocrats are successful in influencing the members of the Assembly during the vote to choose a candidate close to the state bureaucracy, Iran may have an opportunity to transition toward ‘normalization’ as a country. President Rouhani and Former Iranian judiciary chief Mahmud Hashemi Shahroudi are two possible candidates who are likely to win the backing of moderates in the Assembly.
Whilst Shahroudi has stronger clerical credentials and support among seminarians than Rouhani, both in Qom and in Najaf, he is in poor health, which will negatively affect his chances. Also, there is an ongoing discussion concerning his nationality (he held Iraqi nationality for more than 40 years), which may prove problematic to his campaign.
Another candidate often mentioned inside Iran, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, has strong family support. His brother is the Speaker of the Parliament and his father-in-law is Grand Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani. However, he has recently been embroiled in corruption charges and has reportedly fallen out of favor with Khamenei.
Rouhani stands a better chance; as President he can influence the vote of the Assembly both through coercion and cooption. In addition to the support of the technocrats, Rouhani has the backing of traditionalist clerics who prefer a sharper delineation between the political and religious leaderships. President Rouhani’s background in clerical, security and bureaucratic circles may help him shape a new alliance of political elites. However, Ayatollah Khamenei’s office and the IRGC will seek to prevent him from doing so.
IRGC: The technocrat choice that would lead to a military regime
The IRGC is one of the most powerful groups in the state and will no doubt be a principal influencer of the Assembly’s decision behind the scenes. If the next appointee is not favored by the IRGC, a military-led coup against the next supreme leader is a possibility.
At the same time, although discussed less often, there is the possibility of a tactical alliance between the IRGC and the technocrats. In such a scenario, the next supreme leader would be someone of limited religious and political stature.
This individual would speak only as a guiding religious voice, without the political strength possessed by Khomeini or which Khamenei managed to amass from 1989 onwards.
Such an outcome would see an IRGC–technocratic alliance become the new de facto heart of the regime, transforming Iran into a military–bureaucratic state and representing a move away from its present theocratic model. It may also involve a constitutional change to weaken the power of the Office of the Supreme Leader – a step that the general population would likely welcome.
While the clergy comprised the principal source of influence in the selection of the supreme leader in the early years of the Islamic Republic, the most influential groups in this process today are the Rouhani-led bureaucracy and the IRGC.
The selection of the next Supreme Leader from the ranks of the moderates inside the Assembly will not guarantee the democratization of the Islamic Republic, but the choice of a hardliner from a younger generation is virtually guaranteed to move Iran toward further authoritarianism at home and more aggressive interventionism abroad.
Overall, the choice of a hardline Supreme Leader will assure the continuation of Khamenei’s domestic and foreign policies. This outcome will preserve both the “Islamization” that lies at the heart of the regime’s political identity – and is touted as the basis for its legitimacy – and its foreign policy based around the Axis of Resistance, thereby indefinitely postponing any process of political “normalization” or “de-radicalization” in the Islamic Republic.