After Khamenei

What’s at stake for Iran after its 82-year-old supreme leader dies, and why the upcoming presidential elections may decide the country’s future

After Khamenei
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks past a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei/Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei just turned 82 years old. Though he is in decent health and continues to make speeches — with some COVID-19 restrictions as of late — he is yet to publicly designate a successor. Over the past several years, Iranian officials have said that a list of names has been generated by an Assembly of Experts committee, the legal body that selects a supreme leader according to the constitution, but this list remains a secret. What is public knowledge, however, is that any candidate up for consideration must be a cleric with strong ties to the regime’s powerful stakeholders, who themselves will shape the succession process.

Adding a wrinkle to this succession is Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, slated for June. The winner will likely end up presiding over the succession process of supreme leader after Khamenei dies, making the coming election one of the most decisive in recent years. Although the president of the Islamic Republic has limited powers, he can boast a public profile high enough to weigh in on anyone’s potential candidacy for the supreme leader position. He can potentially rile up the populace in favor of, or against, a candidate. The next president can also throw a wrench into any renewed nuclear agreement or can applaud and sell it to the people. Khamenei must therefore be rooting for a presidential candidate who will offer as little disruption as possible to the succession process.

In the last succession in 1989, the faction that catapulted Khamenei into office purged and sidelined its own rivals, who were primarily the Islamist left, thus tightening Khamenei’s grip on power. Khamenei and his ilk have dominated key positions within the country’s legal mechanism to ensure an outcome that is favorable to them and to the status quo. The Assembly of Experts, for example, was supposed to be an independent and ultimate authority in selecting a successor for the supreme leader. In reality, though, these laws have been quietly revised and flouted, leaving the Assembly as nothing more than a body of formalities that rubber stamps what Khamenei and his camp want. There is every reason to expect these dynamics will continue unabated into the next succession.

Nonetheless, some names have been floating about in public conversations in Iran and abroad. One of them is Mojtaba, Khamenei’s son. But such a succession may be too bold and problematic because it is a glaring contradiction to a basic principle of the 1979 Islamic Revolution: that hereditary rule is a sacrilege. Mojtaba has not cultivated a public image, and he is not known to give public speeches. Over the years, he has acted more as a fixer or manager, working on his father’s behalf and behind the scenes, thus making himself appear that much more despotic and untrustworthy in the eyes of the populace.

Another possible candidate mentioned in Iran and abroad as a possible successor is Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi. There are good reasons to consider him a front-runner since he checks a number of boxes, such as being a “Sayyid” — a descendent of the Prophet — and having extensive experience in government with good ties to the military and security forces. Especially to his credit, perhaps, is the reputation that he is not afraid to do what needs to be done — to “shed blood” when necessary. In 1988, he was one of the judges who carried out the infamous mass execution order issued by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against some 5,000 political prisoners who were suspected members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (commonly referred to as Muhajideen-e-Khalq or MEK) but had never stood a fair trial. (The prison massacre happened at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, when an incursion of MEK backed by Iraq was defeated.)

After that, Raisi rose steadily through the ranks of the judiciary. Then, in 2016, Khamenei appointed him as a trustee of the multibillion-dollar Imam Reza Shrine foundation. This appointment propelled his public and political profile to the forefront, perhaps giving him the confidence to run for president of the Islamic Republic in 2017. But he lost the bid, a defeat that may end any possibility for him to be named supreme leader. After all, should the man rejected by most of the people of the republic be fit to take the position of “God’s Shadow on Earth”?

Then again, how this question may be resolved is unclear. After Raisi lost his bid for president, Khamenei promoted him in 2019 to judiciary chief, where Raisi continues to cultivate his image as a crusader against corruption. Adding complexity to his possible candidacy as a successor is that, despite the buzz and speculation about him, not much is known about his relationship with Mojtaba, a key figure in crafting the succession.

Former Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani is another figure whose name has been floated as the next supreme leader, though he has recently become weak. His brother, former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, developed ties with Khamenei in the 1980s, and at one point, the Larijanis controlled both the legislative and judicial branches of the Islamic Republic. Over the years they have earned a (well-deserved) reputation for corruption, making them a prime target for the regime’s sporadic anti-corruption crusades. Indeed, one of the first major initiatives that Raisi did was to put on trial a former deputy of Larijani.

The previous succession to the supreme leader may shed more light on what to expect in the coming one. It began to unfold in the early days of the Islamic Republic, shortly after the regime’s founder, Khomeini, had his first heart attack in 1980. A triumvirate of holy-men-turned-politicians swiftly emerged to govern on Khomeini’s behalf, according to Iran scholar Ali Alfoneh, author of “Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran” (published 2020). They were Khamenei, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Khomeini’s son and right-hand man, Ahmad. The three men successfully sidelined all rivals, including the network of Khomeini’s designated successor, Hossein-Ali Montazeri. When Montazeri openly protested the 1988 mass execution, that was the end of his political career.

Khomeini died in 1989, and the trio of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and Ahmad Khomeini swiftly rallied behind Khamenei to become supreme leader. They changed the constitutional requirement that the supreme leader must be a high religious authority — a source of emulation (Marja-e Taqlid) — as Khomeini was but Khamenei was not. In a video recorded at the time, but leaked in 2018, Khamenei can be seen feigning humility when he tells the Assembly of Experts as they prepared to cast their votes for his selection: “We should shed tears of blood wailing for the Islamic society that has been forced to even propose me.”

Shortly thereafter, Khamenei and Rafsanjani purged Ahmad Khomeini from power. Ahmad later died under mysterious circumstances in the 1990s. The very wealthy and powerful Rafsanjani, who was a two-term president among other top positions, also fell out with Khamenei. Then he, too, died under suspicious circumstances in 2017.

In his quest to have supreme control, Khamenei fundamentally transformed the balance of power in Iran. Though he lacked Khomeini’s charisma and religious authority, Khamenei went on to centralize all authority into his own hands. Mehdi Khalaji, a theologian trained in Qom, puts it like this in a 2014 report: “Ironically, a leader once seen as an inadequate successor to Khomeini may now have accumulated more power than the first Supreme Leader, at least in some areas.”

Today, Khamenei has the final word on all critical matters in the state. He has cultivated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — founded by his predecessor — to be a valve on any potential coup d’état by the military and has expanded its intervention into politics and the economy, thus creating a symbiotic relationship with it.

The IRGC has been instrumental in defending the Islamic Republic against uprisings, which have grown fiercer over time. Top IRGC brass answer to Khamenei, who controls the Armed Forces General Staff, which also oversees the police, which in recent years has been “militarized.” In November 2019, at the first sign of unrest, various security forces swiftly shut down the internet and used deadly force, killing hundreds in the span of days.

It is therefore no surprise that, over the years, the supreme leader and the “establishment” have grown more reliant on the IRGC and its reach of power, even as Khamenei asserts his supreme control over the country. To keep a watchful eye on the all-too-powerful IRGC, Khamenei appointed the very commanders who control the IRGC Counterintelligence arm. One IRGC scholar, Saeid Golkar, described in a report in 2019 this counterintelligence arm as: “A vast network, led by so-called ideological-political organizations, promotes curricula to ensure that personnel live by Islamic Republic ideology, a strict religious code, and absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader.”

Khamenei also placed loyal individuals in unelected positions that can circumvent the workings of republican institutions. Making use of the constitutional clause that allows the supreme leader to appoint the six theologians out of the 12 members of the Guardian Council, Khamenei has long placed his loyalists in the Council that vets candidates for public office and maintains oversight over legislation. The other six who are jurists, are presented by the judiciary chief, who in turn is an appointee of the supreme leader. For its part, the Council can disqualify candidates who run for political office and exercise veto power over parliamentary bills.

The Office of the Supreme Leader — a bureaucratic body that executes the authority of the top leader, particularly Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, who acts as the chief of staff of the apex office — has also grown in importance as Khamenei aged. Khamenei and his Office control a multibillion-dollar business empire with interests in virtually every sector of the Iranian economy. A 2013 Reuters investigation estimated the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) assets at $95 billion. “This doesn’t take into account the vast network of private companies owned by members of the Khamenei clan, active in oil and gas media, export-import, and other sectors,” Marketa Hulpachova, an analyst at Tehran Bureau, which uses open-source data to map the Iranian economy, told New Lines. Khamenei controls other organizations, known as bonyads — not-for-profit, state-sanctioned, large religious conglomerates that operate with little or no transparency — including Mostazafan Foundation and the Reza Holy Precinct, which oversees the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad. To manage all of this, the Office has grown into a large operation with thousands of employees who have formal and informal influence throughout the sprawling bureaucracy with little public oversight. With it, Mojtaba’s influence has also grown.

Indeed, several pro-government figures have publicly accused the Office of censoring sections of the supreme leader’s speeches that he delivered in person. One example is when Khamenei mistakenly said last year, at the beginning of the global pandemic, that 1 million had died. His office released a video to correct that, highlighting its role in managing his public image, as BBC Persian journalist Hossein Bastani has noted.

In November 2019, the U.S. designated Mojtaba as someone “representing the Supreme Leader in an official capacity,” adding that the elder Khamenei has “delegated a part of his leadership responsibility to Mojtaba,” who has worked “closely” with the IRGC Quds Force and Basij to “advance his father’s destabilizing regional ambitions and oppressive domestic objectives.”

Other examples of Mojtaba’s influence have been raised before. For instance, then-presidential candidate and later Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi singled out Mojtaba for helping secure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s win in 2005. Yet Mojtaba does not have an official role, and his father never mentions him in public.

Still, Mojtaba has leveraged his relationship to insert into high positions his own compatriots with whom he fought during the Iran-Iraq War. Journalist Morad Veisi profiled Mojtaba’s faction. “(A)fter the war, it gradually turned into a circle for the gathering of a number of the most radical and security-intelligence forces of the Islamic Republic surrounding Mojtaba, Ayatollah’s Khamenei’s most political offspring,” Veisi wrote.

This “circle of the gathering” includes Hossein Taeb, IRGC intelligence organization chief; Hassan Mohaqeq, Taeb’s deputy; Ebrahim Jabbari, commander of Khamenei’s personal guard; and Mohammad-Esmail Kowsari, former parliamentarian and member of the IRGC Sarallah Base, which takes charge of all armed forces movements in Tehran during times of unrest. (Kowsari left his post last year and is running for parliament again.) Other individuals who served with Mojtaba in the war include Alireza Panahian and Mehdi Taeb, the intelligence chief’s brother, both clerics who have fiercely defended Khamenei and called for the harsh crackdowns on anti-government protesters. (The elder Khamenei’s security deputy Ali Asghar Hejazi helped Mojtaba in this endeavor.)

Khamenei will disqualify any presidential candidate he does not like, which includes the opposition and many reformists. (He recently weighed in against Khomeini’s grandson, Hassan Khomeini, who is close to the reformists. Hassan dropped out of the race after Khamenei told him to do so).

As such, the presidency is poised to be a competition within only the one camp of hard-liners, between different factions in the Office of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC — all while renewed nuclear talks loom large on the horizon. The principlist camp, or those who profess commitment to the principles of the revolution, are notoriously divided. (The principlists are the original Right in the Islamic Republic, according to the Tehran Bureau Style Guide, a linguistic project that analyzes the etymology of ideological terms introduced into the Persian language since the Revolution. As the Left increasingly moved from being radical to becoming a reformist camp willing to work within the establishment, the principlists moved closer to an originalist position, claiming to be the only true guardians of the Revolution and Khomeini’s ideals. For this reason, I use the term principlist rather than the more ubiquitous “hard-liners” to describe this camp.)

Indeed, the knives are already out within the IRGC. When presidential hopeful and IRGC engineering arm chief Saeed Mohammad resigned from the IRGC to prepare for his campaign, the IRGC’s Political Deputy, Yadollah Javani, alleged on April 3 that Mohammad had in fact been “relieved of his duties.” The allegation is significant because, if true, it would imply that Mohammad had violated regulations when he conducted election-related activities while holding his IRGC post. There have also been media reports claiming that Mohammad played a role in bringing charges against several former IRGC commanders involved in Yas Financial Holding, an IRGC Cooperative bonyad. The Yas scandal should be viewed more as a settling of scores between rivals than a genuine case of anti-corruption, and a lot about it remains unknown. For example, the former chief commander of the IRGC himself, Mohammad-Ali Jafari, is reportedly implicated in it, but is yet to be charged.

In a rare display of a public spat, IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif has suggested that Javani retract his allegation against Mohammad, whose campaign appears to have become even weaker after the Supreme Leader’s Representative to the IRGC — a political commissar position to which Javani answers to — backed Javani’s allegations.

In another example of the in-fighting, a military court upheld Yas-related corruption charges against several IRGC commanders in late March, including charges against a former deputy of Mohammad Baqeri — himself a former IRGC commander, Tehran Mayor, and current Parliament speaker — who has hinted at running for president.

Several “principlist” figures have pushed for Raisi to run for president, for in their view he encapsulates the Revolution’s original and true values. But he has thus far declined. If he were to become president, he would inherit the economic and political turmoil associated with the presidency. It is more profitable for him, perhaps, to remain in the judiciary, where he is trying to craft a positive image for himself as an anti-corruption crusader.

Then there is Ahmadinejad, who does not hide his intention of running again and has serious support, particularly among the working class who feel he was the only one who ever did anything for them. But just like in 2017, he will probably be disqualified because he remains anti-establishment, even though his “reformist” streak is so tame that he never calls for radical change or the overthrow of the regime.

Indeed, reformists have their own problems. They have been unable to deliver on promises of change and political liberalization for two decades. A reformist or reformist-backed candidate has been in office for a total of 16 years (election-rigging in 2009 notwithstanding). Reformists openly acknowledge their crisis of public confidence. Several reformist newspapers and figures were pushing for Hassan Khomeini (who has managed millions of dollars from state coffers to run the trusteeship of his grandfather’s mausoleum without financial transparency or accountability) to run. But since Khamenei asked him to stand down — and Hassan obliged — perhaps that has put the final nail in the coffin for the reformist camp, at least for this presidential election.

Another presidential candidate, who one comes from the IRGC, is Hossein Dehghan. He has been Khamenei’s adviser and served as defense minister during President Hassan Rouhani’s first term. Dehghan’s career highlights include his stint as IRGC Lebanon commander during the 1983 Marine barracks bombing. In 2019, the U.S. designated him, alongside Mojtaba, as a member of Khamenei’s inner circle for his role, though he continues to deny any involvement in the barracks bombing during interviews he gives to Western media outlets.

Dehghan has long been “an insider,” but he has not quite mustered any significant popular support. That said, he does meet certain requirements. He is among Khamenei’s close circle of advisers. Over the years, he has worked under several administrations and has fostered many allies. Unlike some other candidates who want to run, like Saeed Jalili who ran and lost in 2013, Dehghan remains a largely unknown figure to most of the public.

In all, whoever becomes the next president of the Islamic Republic will face many crossroads. There are renewed nuclear talks and a restless nation licking its wounds from two bloody protests that happened in the past five years. There will probably be a death and a succession to the position of supreme leader. The powers that be must be watching all of this with a plan. They will tolerate a low turnout of voters and inflate the numbers. Then they will anoint the new president as their very own yes man to prepare for what’s to come.

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