Iran: Inside the battle to succeed supreme leader Khamenei

Posted on October 24, 2016

The final judgment may rest with God. But there is a lot of manoeuvring in Tehran to influence the decision on who will be Iran’s next supreme leader. There is no public succession plan for the most powerful position in the Islamic republic, which has been entrusted since 1989 to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Discussion of the subject is all but forbidden while the 77-year-old remains active, delivering speeches and attending military parades.

Nevertheless Iran’s landmark deal with the US and other major powers to scrap its nuclear programme — triggering a lifting of nuclear-related sanctions imposed on the country since 2011— is being interpreted by many in terms of what it may mean for a post-Khamenei Iran and who might run the country.

Reformists want to build on the progress they believe has been made by the centrist Hassan Rouhani, president since 2013, and are pushing for a moderate candidate. Hardliners are determined to do all in their power to stop them. A large number of other interests, from the Revolutionary Guards to the clerics in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad, will have a say. Some are even privately suggesting that the position, introduced after the 1979 Islamic revolution to have a senior cleric in charge of the country, may no longer be necessary — raising questions over the future of the theocratic state.

“The nuclear agreement has rocked Iran’s political establishment,” says one senior reformist politician. “Succession has become a bigger worry than before.”

No major development can happen in Iran without the supreme leader’s backing. His authority underpins much of life in the republic, from the economy to family planning and education. There would not have been a nuclear deal without his agreement, but he remains wary of US intentions. According to those close to him, he is opposed to being replaced by anyone who might leave the door open to Washington — still regarded as the country’s arch-enemy — to increase its influence in the country and undermine Islamic rule.


Reformist favourite: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani © AFP

The battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to be the next US president is therefore being watched intently in Tehran. Reformists believe Mrs Clinton would pursue further implementation of the deal but they see Mr Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric as useful to hardliners who want to portray themselves as hawks who can stand up to the US.

“Rouhani and his team want to use the shock of the nuclear agreement to push for fast economic and political reforms with the help of the US,” says a relative of Ayatollah Khamenei. “But the supreme leader is wary that this rush would make the system vulnerable to US ‘infiltration’.”

Heavy burden

Ayatollah Khamenei rarely cries during public speeches. So when state media showed him bursting into tears at a March meeting of the Experts’ Assembly, the clerical body tasked with choosing his successor should he die during its eight-year term, viewers found it shocking. “Infiltration [into Iran’s political system] is a serious plot by Americans,” he told senior clerics. “This infiltration has targeted officials … to make decisions that it [the US] pursues … and make people change belief in political Islam.”

The speech to the Experts’ Assembly — and others made by the supreme leader this year — have been interpreted as a sign that the succession has become an even heavier burden on him since the completion of the nuclear deal with the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany. Observers say his anxiety is driven by fears over the possible effects of the accord on Iran’s political and economic structures and its subsequent choice of supreme leader.

The position of velayat-e faqih(supreme jurisprudence) was created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the republic’s founder. But it has been occupied for all but 10 years of the Islamic republic’s life by Ayatollah Khamenei. It allows a senior cleric to rule in the absence of the Prophet Mohammed.

Potential successor:
1 Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi


Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi failed in his attempt to be elected chairman of the Experts Assembly (pictured)

The moderate figure and former judiciary chief has long been seen as a possible compromise candidate. However, the standing of the 68-year-old cleric has been dented by allegations over his business interests. He failed to win the chairman’s role on the Experts’ Assembly, gaining just 13 votes, but remains a member.

The supreme leader is tasked with defending the oppressed in the Islamic world against the oppressor — the US and Israel in this version of history. That role has been central to Ayatollah Khamenei’s reign, which has seen Iran’s regional influence grow dramatically. But some observers question whether the country, politically and socially, has outgrown the need for such a role.

Some reformists say it should be the votes of the people that matter and that the country’s political structure — dominated as it is by the supreme leader — lags behind democratic and secular movements. They are demanding the right to choose candidates in national elections, the prosecution of corrupt businessmen linked to the ruling system and the lifting of restrictions such as the obligatory wearing of the hijab.

Potential successor:
2 Sadeq Amoli Larijani


Sadeq Amoli-Larijani has been trying to win the approval of the Revolutionary Guards © FT montage

The 55-year-old head of the judiciary has adopted a hardline approach and harshly attacked reform-minded politicians. It is thought that he has been seeking the approval of the Revolutionary Guards but lacks popular support. Many judicial decrees seen as unjust by some — including heavy punishments against political activists — are attributed to him.

Hardliners, in contrast, believe that votes are only a measure of public opinion. Therefore a supreme leader — who they say is selected by the senior clerics in the Experts’ Assembly only after they find out who is appointed by God — is not obliged to follow public demands.

Iran’s top leader allows reformists and hardliners to coexist, and some argue that he plays them off against one another. Yet reformist politicians concede that his speeches show he is determined that their camp should not be able to influence the succession. That has not deterred senior reformists — led by former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a centrist, and Mohammad Khatami. Both are under pressure from hardliners not to play a role in Iran’s politics but they have so far ignored it.

Given Ayatollah Khamenei’s relative good health the search for a successor might not be urgent. But the factions are calculating that they need to position themselves to have any hope of influencing the decision once he dies. “Today’s fighting is for the fateful day [when the supreme leader dies], but it is not clear that the person who has a chance today will still have the same chance when that day comes,” says one reformist.

Potential successor:
3 Hassan Khomeini


Hassan Khomeini is the grandson of the leader of the 1979 revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (inset) © FT montage

A moderate cleric, and the grandson of the founder of the 1979 revolution, Khomeini is allied with pro-reform groups. Hardliners blocked him from running for the Experts’ Assembly elections this year. This does not rule him out of the top job, but has marked him as a cleric without political experience, raising questions over his ability to enforce political Islam.

Ayatollah Khamenei will have a pivotal role in deciding his successor but the economy and Iran-US relations will be critical. What worries the supreme leader, say people close to him, is that his passing might come at a time when reformists are strong in Tehran and a Democratic president is in the White House. That, he fears, would open the way for greater US involvement in Iran. He therefore welcomes tensions between the countries as a useful ploy.

Continued criticism of the US’s role in the Middle East has undermined implementation of the nuclear deal and slowed much-needed foreign investment. While thousands of memorandums of understanding have been signed with western entities, few major contracts have been concluded. Low oil prices since 2014 and years of sanctions have only added to the problems of a stagnating economy and made tackling problems like youth unemployment, officially at 26 per cent, a huge task.

“Unemployment is a time bomb in Iran in particular when people think they are systematically being deprived of their national wealth,” warns one Iranian economist. “People want decent jobs and income and believe this is part of their constitutional rights but see that the biggest corruption happened when oil prices were at a record high. This makes them angry.”

Mr Rouhani clearly sees the deal as a way to kick-start internal reform, saying in February that “Barjam I [the Farsi acronym for the nuclear deal] is finished and now it is time to implement Barjam II at home”.

Potential successor:
4 Mojtaba Khamenei


Mojtaba Khamenei has been linked to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad (inset) as president in 2005 © FT montage

The second son of the supreme leader became a public figure in 2005 when he emerged as a backer of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the hardline president between 2005 and 2013. The 47-year-old was accused on Iranian social media of spending a fortune in the UK on medical treatment to have his first child born — an accusation denied by his family.

Such sentiments horrify hardliners. Despite the support of powerful bodies including the Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary, they have suffered setbacks, losing seats in parliament and the Experts’ Assembly in the weeks after the deal came into force in January.

“The hardliners are like a defeated army,” says one reformist politician, “that can only destroy Rouhani’s railway so that it does not lead to co-operation with the west.”

‘US infiltration’

The supreme leader has not hidden his disapproval of the liberal reforms that Mr Rouhani and his allies are pursuing. He took the president to task. In a clear response to the president’s call for a domestic Barjam, Ayatollah Khamenei said that it was part of the US’s plot to push for “Barjam II, III and so on” with the ultimate goal of changing the constitution.

Mr Rouhani, fearing the loss of his position, according to reformist analysts, subsequently toned down his speeches. And last week he axed Ali Jannati, his controversial pro-reform culture minister, in what many analysts consider part of efforts by the two leaders to curb political tensions.

“If Mr Rouhani had continued to drive in that gear, he could have even anticipated a premature end of his presidency,” says a former senior reformist official. “When the gap widens between the president who runs the country’s daily affairs and the supreme leader who leads the ideology, then concerns grow over the future of the system.”

The Rouhani camp insists that Iran could attract at least $50bn annually in foreign investment to provide jobs and boost an economy starved of cash. The supreme leader is more circumspect. He advocates “an economy of resistance” which Iranian and foreign observers interpret as limited tolerance toward overseas money coming in.

“Khamenei wants foreign investment to help generate jobs but he does not want to open up the country for everyone to have a market share,” says a senior western diplomat in Tehran. “European companies are aware that Iran will modernise only at a digestible speed.”

Modest economic improvement is of limited use to Mr Rouhani whose main support base is the educated middle class. It wants decent jobs and a western-inspired lifestyle. It is the lower class — that has traditionally backed hardliners — and is struggling with basic daily needs that he has to win over. This is the group upset because no matter who is in power, or whether there is a nuclear deal or not, they believe their lives are not improving.

Regional superpower

The hardliners insist that no major reforms are needed. Thanks to Ayatollah Khamenei’s leadership, they argue, Iran has become a regional superpower and a major player in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. They fear, however, that this role is threatened by Mr Rouhani’s foreign policies, which they say will lead to an eventual surrender to the US.

“Those who draft strategies are thinking of how Iran can be a powerful player within the next 50 years, during which the Muslim population of Europe will become more active; Daesh [Isis] would disappear and Saudi Arabia would have no wealth,” says Amir Mohebbian, a conservative analyst.

Potential successor:
5 Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi


Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi has condemned the idea of voting in Islamic ruling

Iran’s leading hardline cleric failed to gain enough votes to retain his seat in the Experts’ Assembly — all but ruling him out of the top job. That failure also makes it more difficult for hardliners to defend him as a theoretician who dismisses the idea that people’s votes matter and asserts that Iran’s supreme leader is appointed by God.

The Guards believe it is their duty to carry out the top leader’s foreign policies. The Rouhani government has not challenged the elite force over regional issues but has tried to curb its business interests — estimated to exceed $100bn in value and stretch from telecoms to construction and energy — which both discourage international companies from investing and undermine the country’s private sector.

The Guards’ have had their wings clipped under Mr Rouhani with access to new big projects notably in the oil and gas sectors restricted and their involvement in crude oil exports ended. But it has come at a cost: making the military more hostile to the government. Ayatollah Khamenei has also responded to pressure to curb the Guards’ political influence by banning them from interfering in national elections in guidelines he approved this month.

“The supreme leader’s move means he is preventing the possibility of a coup attempt by forces who listen to him but may not listen to his successor,” says one reformist. “The Guards are gradually being pushed back to garrisons, while they remain strong as a military force.”

Despite hardline rhetoric, and partly thanks to their business interests, the Guards have often proved pragmatic.

“Like all groups, the Guards will decide [who to support] based on Iran’s situation on the day the supreme leader dies,” one reformist says. “Some crucial conditions for their decision will include oil prices; who is the US president and who will have the upper hand in Iran’s political structure by then.”

No outstanding candidate to be the next supreme leader has yet to emerge. There has been speculation that the Guards prefer Mojtaba Khamenei, the second son of Iran’s supreme leader. “Ayatollah Khamenei is very much against making his position inheritable, but if there is no one else such a decision is not impossible,” says the family member. Reformist candidates could include Mr Rouhani and Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini.

But some argue that the leadership issue goes beyond names. “The main problem is lack of a constructive dialogue inside the regime to find an alternative [to the supreme leader’s position] that helps the Islamic republic survive,” says a senior reformist. “Ayatollah Khamenei still does not believe that we need to make fundamental reforms … and alter his position.”

The toughest days of his reign came after the 2009 election when thousands took to the streets to challenge the allegedly fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the leader’s preferred candidate. About 100 people died. At the time Ayatollah Khamenei said he was ready to sacrifice his “disabled body” for the survival of the Islamic republic — the regime’s priority.

“We are worried about the possibility of chaos post-Ayatollah Khamenei,” warns the senior reformist. “Authorities successfully suppressed the generation that poured into the streets [in 2009]. How about the next generation? Is there any guarantee that they would be silenced so easily?”

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