Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The pinnacle of Iranian power

The failing health of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei puts succession at the head of the Iranian regime into focus. Rania Makram reviews the main contenders and the players that will influence the selection

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since rumours regarding the failing health of the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran were first whispered in 2000, and increasingly after they were confirmed when he underwent surgery in 2014, the question of the selection of his successor has stirred considerable controversy.

This process is expected to occasion one of the fiercest political battles in Iran, in view of the powerful and pivotal nature of the post occupied by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The election of the third supreme leader will also be the most critical political battle Iran has experienced in its modern history.

It will take place at a time of an intense clash of wills between the reformist and conservative trends and the rising influence of the Revolutionary Guard inside Iran and abroad, and at a time when Iran is struggling to emerge from the long grip of economic sections and international isolation, the effects of which have taken a heavy toll on the sturdiness of the regime.

For some time the tug of war between the conservative and reformist camps seemed to leave the situation regarding the selection of Khamenei’s successor open to all possibilities. However, the results of the recent elections of the Assembly of Experts adds a complicating factor.

This is in view of the success of an alliance of moderate conservatives and the reformists from the camps of current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, winning a number of seats that enabled Rafsanjani to return to the political stage after a long absence.

During this eight-year term, the Assembly of Experts is likely to have to perform one of its most chief duties, which is to choose the next supreme leader. Khamenei alluded to such a possibility when, in the run-up to this year’s Assembly of Experts elections, he exhorted voters to elect an assembly that would chose a “revolutionary” leader to succeed him when the time came.


FORCES WITH INFLUENCE OVER THE SELECTION OF THE SUPREME LEADER: Several Iranian government bodies are involved in the task of choosing the person who will become the supreme leader. The chief one is the Assembly of Experts of the Leadership, which is generally shortened to Assembly (or Council) of Experts. Under the Iranian constitution, this body of 89 Islamic jurists is responsible for selecting a successor to the supreme leader in the event of the incumbent’s death or dismissal.

As a first step, the assembly appoints an interim council, consisting of the president, the head of the judiciary and a member of the Guardian Council of the Constitution, to temporarily perform the functions of the supreme leader in accordance with Article 107 of the constitution.

Constitutional Articles 105 and 109 state the conditions that a prospective candidate for the vacancy must meet. Qualifications include the necessary Islamic jurisprudential competence to pronounce fatwas, a sense of justice, piety, a correct political outlook, and social leadership and administrative capacities.

The recent Assembly of Expert elections injected fresh blood into the body. The moderate coalition succeeded in winning 35 seats and Rafsanjani won 51 per cent of the votes (or 4,500,894 votes). Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came in third. Among the outgoing members are Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and the chairman of the assembly during its previous term, Ayatollah Mohamed Yazdi.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to contend that the new composition of the assembly has altered its fundamental loyalty to the supreme leader. Ayatollah Mohamed Yazdi stressed this point after the election results were announced.

The newly elected assembly “is more faithful to the supreme leader”, he said in a statement that can only be understood in the context of the conflict between hardliners and moderates in the assembly, and in the political system as a whole, a conflict that will certainly cast its shadow over the selection process for Khamenei’s successor.

The Guardian Council of the Constitution will also have a crucial say in this process. This 12-member body, half the members of which are appointed by the supreme leader and the other half by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Iranian parliament), plays a key role in vetting prospective candidates for the legislative and Assembly of Experts elections.

Effectively, this means that it is indirectly involved in choosing the successor to the supreme leader and, indeed, ensuring that the prospective successor meets the approval of the incumbent.

Rafsanjani alluded to the council in recent remarks in which he said, “A group is studying the possible options for selecting a new supreme leader in the event of a change in the situation in Iran.” Such talk is taboo in Iran and gave Rafsanjani’s political adversaries additional fodder for their campaign to mar his image and to oust him from his recently won position as chairman of the Assembly of Experts.

A third body that will play a role in choosing Khamenei’s successor is the Revolutionary Guards. This extremely powerful institution, the influence of which permeates all military, security, economic and social aspects of life, is staunchly loyal to the principles of the revolution and the supreme leader.

It has played a major role in supporting the government against the opposition, as occurred during the presidency of Mohamed Khatemi and, more importantly, at the time of the “Green Revolution” that erupted when it was announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a second term as president. The Revolutionary Guards are expected to use their weight to obstruct the chances of any political moderate who seeks the post of supreme leader.

The Assembly of Experts, which is chiefly responsible for choosing the successor, is well aware of the influence of the Revolutionary Guards, whose commanders make a point of attending the assembly’s meetings from time to time.

Among the most prominent of these commanders is Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, noted for his fiery speeches in the assembly in support of the supreme leader and to underscore the Revolutionary Guards’ role in defending the principles of the revolution inside Iran and abroad.


THE MOST SALIENT PROSPECTIVE CANDIDATES: Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi: Shahroudi has a number of points in his favour, not least of which is that he would probably have the support of the two main Shia theological centres: Qom and Najaf. In fact, he was born in Iraq, in Najaf, and he was the first to serve as the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). He also served as head of the Iranian judiciary from 1999 until 2009.

In addition, he is on good terms with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as with Rafsanjani and Mohamed Khatemi. He is also known as a marja taqlidi — a high authority on Islamic laws and principles. However, he lacks charisma and the question of his dual Iraqi-Iranian nationality, which has surfaced before, may stand in the way.

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi: Currently the head of the Imam Khomeini Foundation for Education and Research in Qom, by appointment from the supreme leader, Yazdi also heads the Supreme Council for the Ahl Al-Bayt World Assembly, also based in Qom. However, like Shahroudi, he is not very popular and, more importantly, he has incurred the animosity of many Iranian clergymen and lost all support among the reformist trend after having accused fthen President Mohamed Khatemi of departing from the principles of the revolution.

Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei: Supreme Leader Khemenei’s second son, Mojtaba, has considerable financial clout and is highly influential in security circles. His candidacy would be backed by the Revolutionary Guards and, above all, the notorious paramilitary volunteer organisation known as the Basij. He would also be supported by quite a few members of the clergy, especially now that he obtained the rank of mujtahid.

He reportedly enjoys a good degree of popularity amongst the reformist and moderate trends and, at the age of 43, he would be the youngest contender for the post of supreme leader. However, he does not have the support of the Qom seminary and the suspicion of an attempt to engineer a “hereditary succession” would be a foremost obstacle.

Hassan Khomeini: Grandson of the founder of the Iranian Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini, Hassan Khomeini is something of a controversial figure. He was one of the most prominent figures to be disqualified by the Guardian Council for the Assembly of Experts elections.

Educated at the Qom seminary, he is currently one the most prominent teachers there. He is widely respected in Iranian society, in general, and has a good reputation among reformist circles and Rafsanjani supporters. However, fierce attacks by hardliners would diminish his chances.

Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani: One of the most powerful and influential politicians in Iran, Rafsanjani has held numerous offices in the post-revolutionary Iranian hierarchy. He served as speaker of parliament from 1980 to 1989, at the time of the Iraq-Iran war, when he was appointed commander in chief of the armed forces. Afterwards, he served as president for two terms (from 1989 to 1997).

However, his political adversaries among the hardliners see him as a symbol of the moderates and a figure that is spearheading the drive to deviate from the principles of the revolution. The hardliners were also angered by his move to forge a reformist front with Rouhani during the recent electoral campaigns.

Ultimately, it is difficult to make any conjectures regarding the selection of a successor to that extremely pivotal post at the peak of the Iranian hierarchy. The process is likely to be packed with surprises, in view of the many pressure cards in hands of both the conservatives and reformists, and the many institutions involved in the process.

What is appears certain is that public opinion will not be a major factor, although it cannot be dismissed entirely. In this regard, the incumbent supreme leader may use his influence to strengthen the hand and cast a spotlight on his preference for a successor.

It is equally certain that scenarios that had once been mooted regarding reducing the powers of the supreme leader, or even eliminating the post altogether, are out of the question at this highly sensitive juncture for the Iranian regime, which is striving to emerge from the constraints of foreign pressures after signing the nuclear deal with the West, and which is simultaneously working to strengthen the domestic front.

The Iranian establishment clearly wants to avert any powerful jolts to the system of government, especially at the peak, in the office of the supreme leader.

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