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How Could Iran's Hard-Liners Choose The Next Supreme Leader?

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad speaks before massive portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (left) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran in 2008.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad speaks before massive portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (left) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran in 2008.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has only had two supreme leaders in its 30-year history.

For the first 10 years, the Islamic Revolution's founder, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was the supreme leader and was unquestionably accepted as such by the ruling clerical establishment.

For the last 20 years, the supreme leader has been Ali Khamenei, a man who has never enjoyed such unquestioned status.

Khamenei's problems stem from the fact that he was an unlikely choice from the beginning. He did not have the religious preeminence that underpinned Khomeini's central concept for an Islamic state: that it be led by the country's most learned Islamic jurist.

His announcement as successor came only after the Khomeini's death, making him appear to be a last-minute choice.

Now, with Khamenei ailing, the succession question looms again. But there is no charismatic revolutionary founder to tell the electoral body -- the Assembly of Experts -- what to do, and the assembly itself is riven by factional divides.

How Much Of A Voice?

The greatest divide is over how much of a republic the Islamic republic should be. Or, in other words: How much of a voice should the people have in a country that officially is a constitutional theocracy?

The Jamkaran mosque near Qom
In Qom, the heart of the clerical establishment, there is considerable sentiment that the theocracy should be subordinate to the constitution and sovereignty of the people.

For this reason, some prominent clerics have defended the right of opposition supporters to challenge the June 12 presidential results even though the supreme leader endorsed Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president-elect the moment the Interior Ministry announced the results.

On July 4, what is arguably the most important organization of religious leaders in Iran, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, took the defense of the opposition's rights much further.

In a statement posted on the association's website, the group called both the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate because of the concerns over voting fraud.

"The New York Times" quoted Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, as calling the development "the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic."

The statement came the same day that hard-liners dramatically upped their attacks on opposition leaders.

One of the supreme leader's close advisers, Hossein Shariatmadari, publicly accused presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi of being a foreign agent.

Historical Reluctance

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
The existence of such strong questioning of the supreme leader's stance in immediately endorsing Ahmadinejad may seem ironic in the heart of Iran's clerical establishment. But it is in line with the Shi'ite clergy's historical reluctance to take part in politics, despite the Islamic republic's theocratic structure.

The divide in Qom over the delicate balance between theocracy and constitutional rule makes the next choice of a supreme leader an extremely threatening one for Iran's hard-liners now in power.

It means there is no guarantee the next elected supreme leader will be in the same mold as Khamenei.

Potentially worse still for some hard-line leaders, there are strong personality clashes that could work against their interests.

The current head of the Assembly of Experts is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost a presidential bid against Ahmadinejad in 2005 and is believed to have backed opposition candidate Mir Hossein Musavi in a bid to prevent a second Ahmadinejad term.

Ahmadinejad attempted in his 2005 campaign to tar Rafsanjani’s family as business profiteers. In the crisis over last month’s election, government-controlled security forces arrested several Rafsanjani family members, including his daughter, in an apparent attempt to pressure Rafsanjani to abandon Musavi.

Alternate Avenues

Earlier this year, the ultra-conservative cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi -- who is closely associated with Ahmadinejad -- lost an attempt to wrest the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts from Rafsanjani. He got less than half as many votes as Rafsanjani.

All this makes Qom a difficult place for any hard-line bid to skew the selection process. And it makes it plausible that hard-liners might look for alternate avenues to Qom if they want to be sure their current dominance is not compromised in the future.

Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi
One alternative is Tehran and enough of a creeping coup over the next four years to put them clearly in a kingmaker’s position.

The softest approach could be to use the dominance of the government and its security branches to escalate the crackdown on reformists that began as a reaction to moderate President Mohammad Khatami and has continued with greater and lesser periods of intensity to this day.

This would be to weaken opponents in the clerical establishment further to assure that the Assembly of Experts elects a new supreme leader to order.

The most radical approach could be to try to gain the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards. It is upon the Guards, the political wing of the country’s military, that the ultimate power and acceptance of a new supreme leader depends.

There is no guarantee any of these scenarios would produce success. But, ironically, the challenge in both – and the many options between – has been made easier by Khamenei’s own slow but steady shift of the regime’s power base from Qom to Tehran.

The reasons for the shift return to Khamenei’s own ambiguous standing in the clerical establishment. He is supreme leader, but he is widely regarded as flawed for the job. After Khamenei’s appointment, his supporters gave him a whirlwind promotion to ayatollah but that only increased the bitterness over his lack of religious credentials.

Strained Relations

During his time in office, Khamenei has waged war on many rival ayatollahs, including using the government to stop them from receiving financial contributions from those members of the public who follow them as religious models, or "marjas." Today, Khamenei rarely visits Qom, underlining the strained relations.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei inspects Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps troops (undated)
Instead, the supreme leader has endorsed the hard-line camp in Tehran as it routs reformists – read republicans – both in the streets and the establishment.

The supreme leader’s hope appears to be to shore up his own power by masterfully playing Iran’s political factions against one another as he nominally remains above the fray.

But doing so, he has allowed the hard-liners to grow so powerful they are now increasingly in a position to think of shaping the state’s future themselves. With him. With a successor they choose. Or possibly even without a supreme leader altogether.

What would be the consequences of the hard-liners’ success?

It is impossible to foresee the full costs now. But with certainty they would include a more closed and insular Iran with a yet more authoritarian government.

This government – both out of conviction and to create a siege mentality at home -- would be yet more confrontational with the West than its precursor is today.

And there would be no way the people of Iran could vote it out of office.
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There have been protests and clashes with police on the streets of Tehran following the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. RFE/RL collects videos, photos, and messages on social-networking sites coming out of Iran to attempt to get a picture of what is happening inside the country. Click here

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