As Khamenei's Health Falters, the Race for Iran’s Next Supreme Leader Heats Up

The appointment of the ailing Ali Khamenei’s successor will be influenced more by his political connections than his religious supremacy. It could affect the nuclear talks.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A woman walks past a poster showing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, right, and the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
A woman walks past a poster showing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, right, and the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded to reports of his death with a public appearance, but his medical condition is serious. He is reportedly suffering from stage 4 prostate cancer and his rehospitalization has spurred on the race for a successor.

The Iranian constitution is clear on this subject. The Assembly of Experts, an elected body of 86 members, chooses the next leader and is empowered to declare that the supreme leader is unable to perform his duties. If the need arises, the Assembly of Experts and its chairman fulfill his functions until a successor is appointed.

But this procedure has never been put to the test because Khamenei, who has been ruling for 25 years, is the only supreme leader after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The constitution also states that the supreme leader must have the greatest possible knowledge of religious law, but also must be acceptable to the people and understand policy and politics.

Khomeini created the system unique to Iran under which the head of state combines deep religious knowledge and political wisdom. Khomeini at first preferred the Islamic legal scholar Hossein Ali Montazeri, but Montazeri’s harsh criticism of the revolution and Iran’s Islamic state removed him from the inner circle and the political succession.

In any case, the appointment of Khamenei’s successor will be influenced more by his political connections than his religious supremacy. The candidates’ closeness to — or distance from — the Revolutionary Guards will also be a factor. At least five candidates are in the mix.

The first of these is Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, acting chairman of the Assembly of Experts, who could now be elected its full chairman. Shahroudi, who was born in Iraq, studied and taught in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, and rose to political prominence when he was tapped to head the judiciary. He is considered middle of the road — conservative but not radical.

He is one of Iran's wealthiest people and made his fortune in imports. His lifestyle has been described as “far from ascetic.” His extensive and original research legitimizes him in terms of religion, and his closeness to the Revolutionary Guards could give him the necessary political backing.

A possible rival for both chairman of the Assembly of Experts and supreme leader is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has held the chairmanship in the past and now heads the Expediency Discernment Council, an influential body on legislation and policy making.

Rafsanjani, who is believed to be worth about $1 billion and was president for two terms, is considered to tend toward the reformists and has criticized Khamenei. “He who opposes the nuclear agreement is playing into Netanyahu’s hands,” he recently declared.

The 81-year-old Rafsanjani ran for president in the last election but was disqualified because of age. He encouraged his supporters to back the current president, Hassan Rohani.

Another possible candidate is Sadeq Larijani, who now heads the judiciary. Larijani is an ayatollah, but he is considered a young religious sage and less experienced than Rafsanjani or Shahroudi. He does, however, have significant family connections; he's the son of the prominent religious sage Hashem Amoli.

One of his brothers is Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament who once headed the Revolutionary Guards. Another brother, Mohammad Javad Larijani, headed parliament’s research institute and is currently Khamenei’s political adviser with connections to the Revolutionary Guards.

In the Iranian political world, connections like that are often more important than titles or an impressive CV in government. Sadeq Larijani, like his brothers, is a radical conservative in the government and has remained a strict follower of Khamenei’s positions on the revolution’s values.

The religious sage Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi is another possible candidate – a far-rightist who often puts off not only reformers but also conservatives closer to the center.

Another candidate is Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader's second son, but he's unlikely to garner support because of his tender age of 45. And his religious education is incomplete.

He teaches theology, but his main strengths are his close ties to the Revolutionary Guards, his control of the Guards’ Basij volunteers, and especially his easy access to his father's office.

Mojtaba Khamenei is often known as the head of the “mafia” linked to many of the Guards’ economic deals. According to reports in Iran, he headed a campaign to elect Ahmadinejad in 2009, but toward the end of Ahmadinejad's term the president accused the younger Khamenei of corruption.

The succession question will prove one of Iran’s most fascinating struggles since the revolution because it will be the first when succession isn’t determined by the father of the revolution. After all, Khomeini’s decision was irrefutable.

The question will thus be whether the religious, political and military elites seek a leader easier to work with. That would strengthen their influence but increase power struggles in the long term. Or will it be a leader who relies on the political center that can balance – and neutralize if necessary – the fringes?

This struggle will of course have implications for the nuclear agreement’s progress and form, and whether one is signed at all. After all, there’s a new element in the timetable set by Iran and the world powers: Khamenei's lifespan and his desire — or lack thereof — to make an agreement part of his legacy.

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