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EXPLAINER: What happens when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dies?

Published: Updated:

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has ruled Iran for 33 years, but now reports suggest he is “gravely ill” following years of deteriorating health potentially leaving a power vacuum in the Islamic Republic.

Khamenei remains partially paralyzed in his right hand due to a 1981 assassination attempt. In 2014, he survived prostate cancer surgery. The 83-year-old has been the supreme leader of Iran since 1989. He is the country’s highest authority and has the final say on all state matters.

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Khamenei underwent surgery last week after falling “gravely ill” and is currently on bed rest under observation by a medical team, the New York Times reported on Friday, citing four people familiar with Khamenei’s health condition.

Khamenei “had surgery some time last week for bowel obstruction after suffering extreme stomach pains and high fever,” the NYT reported, citing one of the people.

Khamenei is currently being monitored “around the clock” by a team of doctors after undergoing the surgery, according to the report.

In his more than three decades of rule, the leader of the Middle Eastern country has shaped a unique network of relations and centers of power. Sooner or later, Khamenei’s death will come and reveal how ready Iran is for such an eventuality.

In the case of the death of Iran’s most powerful person, what would happen?

According to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader is selected by the Assembly of Experts – a body of 88 clerics. The assembly’s members, who are elected by Iranians every eight years, must first be vetted by Iran’s constitutional watchdog, known as the Guardian Council. Members of the Guardian Council itself are either directly or indirectly chosen by the supreme leader. He therefore has significant influence over both bodies.

Over the last three decades, Khamenei has ensured the election of conservatives to the assembly who would follow his guidance on choosing his successor.

Once selected, the supreme leader may remain in that position for life.

To become supreme leader, a candidate must receive two-thirds of the votes from the Assembly of Experts.

While the constitution states that in the case of death or removal of the current supreme leader the assembly must appoint a new leader as soon as possible, the process of choosing a replacement will likely take some time.

According to the constitution, until a new supreme leader is chosen, his duties will be shared by three people: the president, the judiciary chief, and a member of the Guardian Council.

“Until the introduction of [a new] leader, a council composed of the president, the head of the judiciary and one of the jurisprudents of the Guardian Council, selected by the Expediency Council, will take over all leadership duties temporarily,” article 111 of the constitution states.

According to the constitution, the supreme leader must be an “ayatollah,” a senior Shia religious figure. But when Khamenei was chosen, he was not an ayatollah, so the laws were changed to enable him to accept the job.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, March 1, 2022.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, March 1, 2022.

Therefore, it is possible laws can be amended again, depending on the political climate when the time to choose a new leader comes.

According to Michael Rubin, a senior research fellow and expert in Iranian affairs at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, there are many likely scenarios as to the immediate aftermath of Khamenei’s death.

He suggests in a report the “transition could be quick, slow or not at all.”

“In theory, the Assembly of Experts chooses the next leader but they could take days, weeks, or months,” Rubin said. “Perhaps a singular candidate will consolidate control quickly, or perhaps those who suspect they cannot triumph will filibuster any choice.”

Potential candidates

One potential candidate is current President Ebrahim Raisi.

During the 2021 presidential election, the Guardian Council, which is overseen by Khamenei, barred any candidate that could have possibly posed a challenge to Raisi from running.

For some, that was an indicator that unlike in previous elections, the regime was not as interested in high voter turnout and giving some semblance of democracy in Iran. Rather, the focus appeared to be on ensuring the right man is in office as Khamenei approaches the end of his post.

Raisi, 61, was allegedly one of the main perpetrators of Iran’s mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s.

In 2016, Khamenei appointed Raisi as the custodian of Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, a multi-billion dollar religious conglomerate encompassing businesses and endowments that oversees the holy Shia shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, the home city of both Khamenei and Raisi.

Raisi then ran for president in 2017, losing to former president Hassan Rouhani.

In 2019, Khamenei appointed Raisi head of the judiciary, one of the most powerful positions within the Iranian establishment.

“It is safe to assume [Raisi] is a leading contender. At the very least, if Khamenei were to pass away during his tenure as president, Raisi would be playing a critical role during the transition, including the possibility of serving on an interim leadership council,” Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), previously told Al Arabiya English.

Another potential candidate is Khamenei’s second oldest child, Mojtaba.

While Mojtaba Khamenei, 53, holds no official position in Iran and rarely appears in public, he is widely believed to be a key figure in his father’s inner circle.

In 2019, the US sanctioned Mojtaba Khamenei. The US Treasury Department said at the time that Khamenei “has delegated a part of his leadership responsibilities to Mojtaba Khamenei, who worked closely with the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and also the Basij Resistance Force (Basij) to advance his father’s destabilizing regional ambitions and oppressive domestic objectives.”

“Despite the familial ties to Ayatollah Khamenei, Mojtaba will likely encounter religious, political, and administrative obstacles to becoming supreme leader,” UANI said in a 2021 report.

“Politically, Mojtaba doesn’t have a natural constituency that other players—like Ebrahim Raisi—have going into the succession process. This will make it difficult for Mojtaba to argue he has the “capability for leadership”,” the report added.

“But Mojtaba’s support within the IRGC could figure in his favor, especially if Raisi’s presidency encounters difficulties.”

A power play by the IRGC

Another option, Rubin said, is that the IRGC might tire of “operating behind the curtain and simply seize power for themselves.”

“After all, they will be loath to sacrifice control over Iran’s nuclear program, most powerful military, and economy to any new leader. The question then becomes whether Iran would be a military dictatorship akin to Egypt or just a continuation of an ideological Islamic Republic absent a clerical figurehead.”

Potential ‘implosion’

Catherine Perez-Shakdam, a Middle East expert from the Henry Jackson Society, said that the subsequent infighting in a post-Khamenei era could lead to the whole regime “imploding.”

The collapse of the regime will have a massive impact on international affairs with the Iran nuclear programme still unresolved since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal a few years ago, she warned, in a report run by the UK’s Express newspaper.

Al Arabiya's Yaghoub Fazeli contributed to this report.

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