Iran’s supreme leader: Who is next in line?

The condition of Iran’s supreme leader has always been considered a crucial matter of national security

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

Being the highest political, spiritual, religious and divine authority and leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has ruled the Islamic Republic for more than two decades. He has enjoyed considerable power over the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of the government as well as the economy and media.

The condition of Iran’s supreme leader has always been considered a crucial matter of national security in the Islamic Republic. There have been rumors about Khamenei’s health conditions for several years. Khamenei’s latest surgery on his prostate prompted some high official Iranian leaders including Hassan Rowhani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit him at the hospital, an unprecedented move.

The media blitz, which has become exceptional about Ayatollah Khameneni’s health, raises several questions such as what political, social, or economic changes might occur if Iran’s supreme leader dies? Who is a credible candidate to succeed him in having the final say in the Islamic Republic’s domestic and foreign affairs?

The condition of Iran’s supreme leader has always been considered a crucial matter of national security in the Islamic Republic

Majid Rafizadeh

Iran’s political system has always been marked by unpredictability. In order to address these questions and project the possible scenarios, it is crucial to shed light on the power relations and political structure in Iran. According to Iran’s constitution, several crucial political bodies will play a role in deciding who would succeed Ayatollah Khamenei. But, in reality one particular organization, which does not have constitutional authority in this matter, enjoys more political and economic power over the others.

The constitution: Significant political bodies

Based on the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Assembly of Experts (Majles-e Khobregan Rahbari) has the authority, and will be designated to appoint a new supreme leader.

According to the constitution, “In the event of the death, resignation, or dismissal of the leader, the (Assembly of) Experts shall take steps within the shortest possible time for the appointment of the new leader.”

The Assembly of Experts has 86 members and though they are elected by Iranian people, the turn out vote has always been low because the Guardian Council- another crucial political institution- supervises the elections, approves and vets candidates for the Assembly of Experts, Majlis (Parliament) and the president. On the other hand, the 12 members of the Guardian Council are directly or indirectly selected by the supreme leader.

In case the appointment of the supreme leader takes some time, other crucial players will include the Expediency Council (chaired by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), president (currently Hassan Rowhani), head of the judiciary (currently Sadeq Larijani), and one of the six jurists from the Guardian Council, who will temporarily fulfill the function of the supreme leader.

The reality: The most crucial player

When it comes to the appointment of a new supreme leader, one of the most critical institutions, which is not mentioned in the constitution, is Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The elites and senior officials of the IRGC will have the final say in the appointment of a new supreme leader for several reasons.

First of all, economically speaking, the IRGC has a monopoly over some of the most crucial financial sectors and is considered to be the state’s economic generator. Secondly, the IRGC has control over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Finally, militarily speaking Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has enjoyed significant power, through Khamenei’s support, to suppress domestic oppositions and operate in other countries in the region to advance Iran’s foreign policies objectives.

In fact, it would be unrealistic to argue that IRGC leaders have not already put together a list of candidates that they desire. Nevertheless, it is crucial point out that even within the IRGC, there are differences of opinions about the prospective supreme leader. Some officials of the IRGC might prefer an individual who holds countless détentes with the West, particularly the United States, pursues Iran’s nuclear program without compromises, while others might prefer an individual with a softer position.

Nevertheless, IRGC leaders will likely unite their voice and make the appointment of a new Supreme Leader a smooth process. This is in order to prevent a political crisis and an environment for opposition or disaffected Iranian youth to spark an uprising.

What kind of supreme leader would the IRGC select?

The IRGC elites are looking for an individual whom they can control, not vice versa. A low profile cleric who totally supports IRGC activities, political and economic monopoly, and objectives such as advancing Iran’s nuclear program and promoting Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions. The last thing the IRGC is searching for is a supreme leader who would challenge their authority and power.

Some might think that candidates such as Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (a member of the IRGC and former Chief of the Judiciary), Mojtaba Khamenei (the supreme leader’s second son), Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi (a conservative cleric), Muhammad Reza Mahdavi Kani (a conservative cleric and chairman of the Assembly of Experts), and Muhammad Yazdi (former chief of the judiciary), appear to be qualified figures to replace Ayatollah Khamenei.

Nevertheless, it is less likely that any of these qualified figures would be a possible choice for the senior cadre of IRGC. These individuals are too influential and powerful, enjoying their own social and political base. In other words, they might pose a great challenge to the rule and autonomy of IRGC leaders and even the Guardian Council and Expediency Council.

The next supreme leader: Someone who resembles Khamenei

When Khamenei replaced the former supreme leader and founder of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini, in 1989, he was among the least qualified candidates in comparison to influential people such as Ayatollah Montazeri. His divine authority, legitimacy and credibility were heavily questioned by the high level clerics in the city of Qom.

Khamenei was not even a Marja’ or Mujtahed, capable of issuing fatwa. He was also considered a weak supreme leader by some, lacking charisma, in comparison to Khomeini. Although Iran’s constitution emphasized the religious authority and qualification of a Supreme Leader, Khamenei’s appointment seemed to be a political move rather than a religious one.

Although Khamenei was weak at the beginning, he was unexpectedly successful and managed to marginalize high level clerics who opposed him, creating his own inner circle and foreign policy office and making a robust alliance with the IRGC in order to control the opposition. As times passed, his views also altered, becoming more in favor of reaching nuclear capabilities and more anti-American. In other words, he created a political structure which is a combination of military dictatorship and theocracy.

Some might argue that the position of supreme leader might be abolished altogether if Khamenei dies. Nevertheless, the foundational basis of the Islamic Republic is anchored in the concept of the Velayate Faqhih, which was advanced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. As a result, such a scenario is not feasible.

Finally, IRGC leaders are most likely looking for a candidate who is not a powerful or influential figure, resembling Iran’s supreme leader at the beginning years of his rule. The IRGC will select a person who grants them free rein in political and economic affairs, ratcheting up IRGC’s leverage over other political and economic institutions. This candidate can be from a lesser-known cleric in the Islamic Republic.

As IRGC leaders gain more political and economic leverage and influence, Iran will likely move towards military dictatorship in my view.


Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University and Harvard scholar. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu.

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