What if Iran’s supreme leader dies?

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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An Iranian observer commented on the absence of Iran’s supreme leader from the public eye saying: “We are not receiving good news about the health of our leader who did not address the people and guests on the day of al-Ghadir… Pray for him.”

The abundance of personal rumors made us used to not believing them and the absence of the supreme leader for 20 days and from two occasions does not mean much. But, despite the weak account of the Iranian regime leader’s health, the question about what might happen after him poses itself forcibly: If the supreme leader died tonight, would Iran change its foreign policy?

The Iranian regime is collective, not like the regime of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for example. Nasser’s death led to a change in Egypt’s polices during the reign of his successor, Anwar Sadat. In single-ruler regimes the successor often revolts against his predecessor’s policies.

Regional experiences

For instance in Syria, when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Syria’s policy changed in many ways. Syria reached a deadlock after the death of Bashar’s father, Hafez, who realized that belonging to a small religious sect (the Allawites) required him to engage in a complex balance of power. When he died, his son Bashar worked on changing the equation and enrolled in the service of the Iranian regime within a full-fledged alliance. He had the courage to assassinate senior figures in Syria, and then Lebanon, and supported terrorism activities in Iraq for years. He then resorted to violence against those who revolted against him.

Back to Iran

Would the death of the supreme leader – the man who has the final say in all state matters– change Iran’s policy for the better or worse? Unfortunately, it will likely be for the worse. All those who are rushing to succeed the supreme leader are more revolutionary than he is, especially with the growing role of the Revolutionary Guards in the state administration and public life. The Revolutionary Guards are running battles in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Gaza.

Would the death of the supreme leader – the man who has the final say in all state matters– change Iran’s policy for the better or worse?

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

A positive figure like Hashemi Rafsanjani has no luck in leading Iran. Rafsanjani ended up isolated and marginalized, even though he helped Ali Khamenei become the supreme leader. However, Khamenei turned against him and isolated him and imprisoned his children. Today, extremists are in control of the key decision-making positions in the Iranian government. Additionally, they have the support of the Revolutionary Guards. Most of Iran’s historical and moderate figures, who could have led the country towards peace and stability and work on the development and establishment of regional and international relations, such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussein Mousavi, have been alienated.

After 30 years of political extremism in Tehran, We hope we would be able catch a glimpse of light in the future of Iran and the Iranian leadership, but we are yet to see the light. These are not only our aspirations, but also the desires of the Iranian people who suffer every day, becoming among the poorest and most miserable, after they once were among the most successful people in the Middle East.

Iran’s regime today is an extremist institution in its reticence and espouses policies similar to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Qaddafi’s Libya, Assad’s Syria and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. We do not know what will happen tomorrow if Khamenei disappears from Iran’s political scene.

This article was first published in al-Sharq al-Awsat on Nov. 2, 2013.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.