This article looks at who might succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader, or rahbar-e mo’azzam. Although Khamenei’s health is not particularly poor at this point in time, he is old (77), and he has recently undergone prostate surgery. Succession is therefore no longer an abstract problem, but something that needs to be prepared for. The transition will be a difficult one for the Islamic Republic.
“All the above mentioned are potential candidates and there could be more, yet it’s clear that none of them has the charm of being one of the first revolutionaries, the legitimacy of being part of Khomeini’s team, or the honor of being a “Khomeini disciple”, except for Hasan Rouhani. This poses serious challenges in a system built originally on spirituality. The future leader will fall into the system built by his predecessor making it easier for the regime to cope with the change, and harder for the new comer to leave a mark quickly.”
Moreover, the political situation is somewhat more complex now than it was in 1989, when Khomeini passed away. Its not that things were easier for the Islamic Republic then, they weren’t. As it does now, Iran faced foreign threats, a crumbling economy and the regime was plagued by intense factional competition. However, the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) was less independent actor and power was centralized in the hands of the Clergy at the end of the 1980s. The IRGC has its own interests and its own factional divisions. It’s mandate is to protect the revolution, so it would be difficult for the IRGC to directly challenge the position of the clergy after Khamenei is dead, but the growing power of the institution does ad several extra levels of complexity to the dynamics of succession.
Public support for the regime was also probably higher then as well. There has been a generational change in Iran and growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. Part of that dissatisfaction has played out in support for the Green Movement and reform oriented politicians. However, part of it has also been drawn to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian neo-conservative movement. Not only did Ahmadinejad oppose the Green Movement, he clashed with traditional conservatives like Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) Ali Larinjani. He even bumped heads with Khamenei on occasion and is clearly on the outs with the Rahbar at this time.
The exact events of the 2009 elections will never be known. However, it did appear that Ahmadinejad had a significant degree of popular support. While Ahmadinejad is out of power and has been in some respects neutralized (he will not run for the President’s office next year) he still also has powerful friends, allies and ideological fellow-travelers in the clergy, the institutions of the state and in the IRGC. He does not have the religious credentials to make a claim on Khamenei’s position, but he probably has strong ideas about who he would like to see in that office. Perhaps he is pulling for someone like his one time ally, hard-line cleric, Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.
In 1989 Khomeini laid the ground work for succession by marginalizing several key figures in the regime, such as his one time heir-apparent Ayatollah Montezeri. The Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani worked out a compromise wherein Khamenei became the Rhabar and Rafsanjani was effectively given the presidency. It will likely be harder to pull of such a neat little trick this time around.