Potential successors of Iran’s supreme leader

The Revolutionary Guard, the dominant military power in Iran, will play a key role in determining the next supreme leader

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The illness and age of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is 75, have stirred heated debate in Iran about his successor, as he has not appointed one. The succession is likely to provoke conflict between various camps in the conservative bloc on the one hand, and between conservatives and reformists on the other.

Conservatives are expected to try to prevent former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani from taking power, due to his strong ties with reformists. They prefer Tehran’s Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami, a hard-line conservative.The Assembly of Experts - an elected body of 86 scholars that oversees the performance of the supreme leader - will be tasked with choosing a successor. The assembly has done so only once, when it chose Khamenei in 1989 after his predecessor’s death.


The Revolutionary Guard, the dominant military power in Iran, will play a key role in determining the next supreme leader. So too will the religious institute in Qom, because of the large number of senior scholars in the Assembly of Experts’ secretariat there.

Potential candidates

* Former judiciary chief Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a prominent jurist and relative moderate.

* Judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani, the younger brother of parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Some believe that he is the favored candidate of the Revolutionary Guard.

* Rafsanjani

* Khatami

* Hassan Khomeini, grandson of former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. He is close to the reformists and is rejected by conservatives.


The Hawza (religious university) in Qom is like a shadow government in Iran, in terms of monitoring the work of the president and his administration, the media and other institutions. The Hawza is keen on preserving Shiite religious red lines, especially in matters of faith, intellectual and press freedoms, and social behavior.

A Lebanese sheikh residing in Qom told Al Arabiya Institute for Studies that the conservative scholars often criticize the president, government and media when they tackle religious values. Those scholars have great influence on the authorities and society because they have millions of followers. However, the sheikh said this does not mean that conservatives are dominant, as reformist Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi has the most followers.

Mohammed al-Duheini, a Lebanese religious scholar, professor and researcher at Al-Mustafa International University, told Al Arabiya Institute for Studies that reformist currents are strongest among university students, while religious scholars are predominantly conservatives and traditionalists who “fear everything new, just for the fact that it’s new, not because it’s erroneous or reprehensible.”The dominance of senior scholars and traditional conservatives on religious universities in Qom will influence the choosing of the next supreme leader.

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