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Why Khamenei wants the next Supreme Leader to be ‘revolutionary’

Surprisingly, Iran’s Supreme Leader has begun raising the issue of Iran’s next supreme leader in some of his speeches

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

Surprisingly, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has begun raising the issue of Iran’s next supreme leader in some of his speeches.

Mr. Khamenei, who is thought to have a terminal cancer, has ruled as Iran’s Supreme Leader for over 25 years. He is the second longest serving ruler in the Middle East and the second-longest-ruling leader of Iran in the 20th century after Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

In a recent meeting, the 76-year-old Ayatollah met with some members of the Assembly of Experts, and pointed out that “a supreme leader has to be a revolutionary” and he advised that members not to “be bashful” in selecting the next supreme leader.

Iran’s constitution grants the Supreme Leader with the highest authority in the country. The Supreme Leader is the single most crucial figure, the highest ranking political and religious authority in Iran. He directly or indirectly controls the three branches of the government; the Judiciary, the legislative and the executive branches.

What does it mean?

But what does a “revolutionary” exactly mean to Khamenei when it comes to regional and Middle East policies? From Khamenei’s perspective a revolutionary supreme leader would be someone who forcefully pursues the ideological principles of Ayatollah Rooh Allah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and the core ideals of Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Since Khamenei took power in 1989, he has shown no deviation from Khomeini’s revolutionary ideologies. When it comes to Middle East policies, exportation of Shiite principles, projection of the Islamic Republic as the vanguard of Islam and the rejection of Israel’s existence are three of the most critical pillars of Iran’s revolutionary ideals in the region. They define the raison d’être of the Iranian regime in the Middle East, as well as what shapes Khamenei’s ideological and regional policy.

Khamenei believes that Iran will lose its Islamic character, its legitimacy, its appeal among its supporters, the essence of its revolution, and it will endanger the survival of its theocratic political establishment if it was to shift its stance and its theological, Shiite and Islamic policies in the region.

Unlike what the mainstream media depicts, the assembly of experts will not be playing a crucial role in determining who will be the successor to Khamenei

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

As the second longest ruling autocrat in the region, from Khamenei’s perspective, his adherence to these revolutionary ideals are the real reasons behind his success in ruling for over 2 decades. In addition, he sees that these are the underlying factors that made his regime immune from powerful opposition, popular uprisings and revolutions such as those occurring in other countries in the region.

Other revolutionary core values that Khamenei desires the next supreme leader to have are showing public support for Palestine, not giving up on Iran’s nuclear program, supporting Shiite proxies militarily, financially, and politically, as well as being the vanguard of Islam and the supreme leader of the Islamic world, (not only the leader of the Shiites).

Khamenei’s official website refers to him as “The Supreme Leader of Muslims”, not the Supreme Leader of “Iran”.

IRGC and Khamenei’s role

Iran’s domestic and regional policies are anchored in the three pillars of preserving revolutionary ideologies, national interest (regarding economic, strategic and geopolitical landscapes), and Iranian nationalism. Khamenei is a firm advocate of prioritizing ideological norms over the other two backbones of the regime.

In addition, Khamenei seems to be repeating the same tactic, which was reportedly played when he was chosen as the Supreme Leader. In this documentary video, it is shown how the former President and founder of the Iranian regime, Akbar Rafsanjani, and Ayatollah Khomeini chose the next Supreme Leader.

Unlike what the mainstream media depicts, the assembly of experts will not be playing a crucial role in determining who will be the successor to Khamenei. The Assembly of Experts is a ceremonial political body, with 86 members, that is said to determine the country's next supreme leader.

It is crucial to point out that the Assembly of Experts is mainly a rubber stamp organization in which its 86 members were already vetted by the subjective decisions of the hard line political body; the Council of Guardians. The twelve members of Guardian Council, are appointed directly by the Supreme Leader (six members), and indirectly (nominated by the head of Judiciary who, in return, are appointed by the Supreme Leader).

The hard line military, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was once the child of Iran’s Islamic revolution and currently has been transformed to be the big brother of the Iranian regime, is another organization which strongly influences the political decision-making in choosing the next Supreme Leader.

In closing, Khamenei seems to be dictating his policies, preferences, and priorities in what kind of Supreme Leader he would prefer Iran to have and who the Assembly of Expert should choose, after his death.

This extends the notion that Khamenei and the senior cadre of the IRGC appear to be preparing the platform to elevate their favorite choice of who will be the next leader of the Iranian regime.
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Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. 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 Dr.rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu, @Dr_Rafizadeh.

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