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Thoughts on Iran’s post-Khamenei future

Replacing the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader will not be easy

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

Rumors about Khamenei’s deteriorated health are not unprecedented. However, local rumors combined with Khamenei’s prolonged absence from the eyes of the public deserve greater attention. Iran’s Supreme Leader might make a public appearance and reject all allegations concerning his health, something he has done many times so far.

In another scenario, Khamenei’s death will present Iran with another challenge as the one in 1989 after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. The later scenario and the possible developments are the object of analysis in this report, based on most recent indicators.

Iran’s most powerful position is occupied by the 74-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei with allegedly ill health. As his eventual death at the moment is seen as the only option for a change at the top in Iran, it is no surprise that the world is watching his medical condition closely.

In case of a need for a succession of power, the management of the process will affect the country’s internal political stability. Iran’s foreign policy will also depend on the reshuffling of the power balance in the country.

A historical lesson from the previous succession is that the projections for a dangerous power vacuum upon the death of Ayatollah Khomeini were exaggerated. Khamenei was appointed quicker than anticipated and with less instability.

Statecraft

But most analysts agree on the insights that the succession provided us of the process itself, which are valuable for future analysis: Appointed successors might not necessarily be the heirs in the end, it is close to impossible to predict the next leader due to the possibility of emerging a junior cleric and also because the legal procedure might be overlooked if the circumstances demand it.

Iran’s most powerful position is occupied by the 74-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei with allegedly ill health. As his eventual death at the moment is seen as the only option for a change at the top in Iran, it is no surprise that the world is watching his medical condition closely.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

At the same time we know that: the successor will have substantial knowledge of statecraft and managerial skills, will believe in velayat-e faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurists) as a source of his power, and will have the support - of at the least the most powerful faction - of the country's Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).

Although there has been precedent for the succession, it is hardly a tradition, and it remains very unpredictable.
We can expect that the succession will be reflective of the power balance amongst the Iranian political elite, which is constantly changing.

The IRGC is said to be more powerful than ever, mostly due to its control over almost one third of the Iranian economy. This fact makes them more eager to influence policies, which is different than their original role of guardians of the regime.

Changing power structure

Another change in the power structure in Iran is that of the Supreme Leader’s source of power. While his predecessor had great popularity and charisma, Khameini was neither a favorite amongst the clergy, nor greatly popular with Iranian people.

However, Khamenei’s new financial empire Setad gives him the independence he needs and the power to stand up to IRGC when needed (e.g. Iran’s nuclear program). Set up as an organization to help manage abandoned property and give funds to poor families, the nature of Setad was changed under the leadership of Khameini.

Through falsely gaining ownership of property Iran and then selling it, the organization has managed to rapidly grow, partially avoid the sanctions against Iran, and empower Khamenei. Setad is now estimated to be worth at around $95 billion. Considering this, the power struggle in eventual death of the Supreme Leader will not go on without input of the financial empire.

One of the reasons is that Setad is led by the Supreme Leader and it is outside of any control of the Iranian Parliament. The organization will likely have a favorite candidate, a person likely chosen (appointed) by Khamenei himself.

Political decline

The clergy in Iran has been on its political decline for a longer period. Increasingly absent from public offices, the clergy is also seen as weaker actor in the succession process. The Assembly of Experts will have limited power to influence the succession and will likely accept the candidate put forward by the IRGC and/or Khameini.

Ahmad Khatami and Mesbah Yazdi are offered as possible candidates, but their extreme interpretation of velayat-e faghih implies absolute tendencies of both Ayatollahs. This is not in the best interest of the IRGC as it is seen as a threat to their power. It is expected that IRGC will opt for a weaker (possibly junior cleric) or a status quo (successor appointed by Khamenei).

Other scenarios offered like forming a leadership council of more people, or the IRGC abolishing the position of the Supreme Leader and establishing military rule are less likely.

Overall, no candidate is promoted as a successor to Khamenei. However, the Iranian religious elite is well aware that the country cannot allow any power vacuum which can damage the regional role of the country as well as weaken the position of the Iranian negotiating team for the nuclear program.

Whether the successor will be someone known to the wider public or not, it can be concluded that due to his relative anonymity, his initial position will be weak. If not appointed by Khamenei, the IRGC will try to use the change in the leadership position to advance its own power by heavily influencing the succession process.

Perhaps we will be looking at a triumvirate at the top of the clerical leadership of the Islamic Republic.


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Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angeles.

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