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Who Will Be Iran’s Next Supreme Leader?

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
The RAND Corporation has issued a report that looks at the possible scenarios should Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pass away and a succession battle ensue. Khamenei is 71 and, according to some rumors, ill. The report discusses five scenarios including: “status quo,” in which Khamenei hand picks his successor; and “abolition" of the supreme leader position.

I spoke to one of the authors of the report, RAND’s Iran policy analyst Alireza Nader.

Persian Letters: Is the Iranian regime prepared for the succession of Khamenei? Do you think they have already made or are making some preparations?

Alireza Nader:
There isn’t much evidence to show that there is preparation for Khamenei’s succession. It’s a risky move for him at this point to designate a successor because that could undermine his power in the near future if he basically says somebody else is supposed to succeed him. Now that does not mean that he has not thought through the issue of succession to some extent, but there isn’t much evidence to show that the regime has prepared for it.

Persian Letters: What are the main factors that will shape the succession?

There are three main factors as I see it. The first one is the theory of Velayat-e Faghih or the Rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent, which is basically the foundational justification for the Islamic Republic. Another key factor is the dominance of a given faction within the system. Right now the principalists, or the fundamentalists, control the regime and when it comes to succession, they’ll have a very strong voice in shaping that process. And also Khamenei’s personal network, his inner city, will play a huge role and that includes the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards have a lot to win -- or lose -- depending on who succeeds Khamenei.

Persian Letters: So the Revolutionary Guards will be the main player in the succession process?

Right. And if succession happens in the next two or three years for example, the Revolutionary Guards are poised right now to shape succession because they are the most powerful actor in Iran.

Persian Letters: Who are the other main players? The Assembly of Experts?

Yes, the Assembly of Experts, which is headed by Ayatollah [Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani. It played some role in Khamenei’s succession in 1989. Although if we look at that process in ’89, Khamenei was really picked by his predecessor Ayatollah Khomenei. And so the Assembly of Experts played a rubber-stamp role. It’s not clear how influential the assembly will be in the next succession. Recently Rafsanjani has been attacked by principalists within the regime and his power has declined since the 2009 election. And then there are other factors that we explored in our study: looking at the Green Movement, which is still alive and relatively strong, as was demonstrated in the recent protests in Iran. Given the Islamic Republic’s various social and political problems, it’s not clear that in the long term you’re going to have a smooth succession process, where the Revolutionary Guards can actually determine who succeeds Khamenei as supreme leader.

Persian Letters: You mentioned the opposition Green Movement. Will the Green Movement and the Iranian people have any role in this near-term succession?

The Iranian people will not have a direct role because the political system is set up in a way to really limit their role in succession. The Assembly of Experts is technically chosen by the Iranian people but in reality the Guardians Council vets the candidates and usually the regime -- or I should say Khamenei supporters -- dominate the Assembly of Experts.

Persian Letters: But as you also mentioned, the Green Movement has been challenging the Iranian regime and, as we saw last week, there were two protests in Iran. Does this mean that you don’t expect any game-changing popular revolt anytime soon in Iran?

It’s very hard to tell with Iran because it’s very different than countries like Egypt or Libya or Bahrain. The regime, although it has lost a lot of legitimacy since the 2009 election, still maintains some base of popular support. And the Green Movement, I think, is popular among a cross-section of Iranian society but it derives a lot of its power from the middle and upper classes and the more educated. It’s not clear if the Green Movement, at this point, can rally masses of Iranians to the streets, as we’ve seen in Egypt. I wouldn’t rule it out, but the regime in Iran is set up in different ways and has different levels of influences over Iranian society. I mean, if we look at Mubarak, he had basically very little support toward the end, whereas there are specific sections of Iranian society that support Khamenei. The Revolutionary Guards, at this point, also remain loyal to him. Although there are divisions within the Revolutionary Guards, it doesn’t seem like the security forces would back down in the face of protests.

Persian Letters: You have discussed in your report five succession scenarios. Which one of them is the most likely to come out in the near-term?

In the near-term, it’s a "status quo" scenario basically where somebody like Khamenei succeeds them. And the reason for this is because it benefits various actors within the system -- the principalists, the Revolutionary Guards. There’s also the option of having an absolute dictator -- a supreme leader who ignores Iran’s elected institutions. When you look at a lot of the statements coming out after the 2009 election, senior figures within the system like Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, and Khamenei’s representatives within the Revolutionary Guards, talk about divine authority, the supreme leader not being held accountable by the people, the supreme leader being appointed by God -- a viewpoint that has common currency among the top level of the elite.

Now there are other scenarios, for example a leadership council made up of several people, or more of a reformist supreme leader that takes into account popular will and opinion and also consults with the clergy in Qom. Also there’s a scenario where the office of the supreme leader is abolished. Either you have an Islamist state ruled by the Revolutionary Guards, or at least a supposed Islamist state ruled by the Guards, or you have a more secular, republican system of government.

Persian Letters: And who are the likely candidates who would be replacing Khamenei?

That’s very hard to tell. It’s not something that is very predictable but, for example, in a "status quo" scenario you could have a relatively fundamentalist senior cleric succeed Khamenei. Various names have been thrown out in the media. People like Mesbah Yazdi or Ahmad Khatami who is a Friday Prayers leader. But it’s not clear if somebody like that can become supreme leader. If we look at succession in 1989, Khamenei was a relatively junior cleric, but because Khamenei at that time was very close to Rafsanjani -- Rafsanjani played a very important role in the succession of 1989 -- he was able to assume power. So it could actually be a relative unknown -- somebody who is not as well-known in the public or who is not considered to be as powerful.

Persian Letters: My last question, I looked at the sources you used -- most of them are in English. Why didn’t you use Farsi sources?

We did use Farsi sources. We looked at various websites in Iran and Iranian news sources as well.

Persian Letters: But most of the sources are in English.

Yes, it was just more accessible.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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