April 17 marked Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s 85th birthday and coincided with a critical juncture for Iran as tensions with Israel escalated at historic proportions. While details regarding Khamenei’s physical state remain confidential, unprecedented remarks from the head of the Supreme Leader’s medical team stirred speculation about Khamenei’s true condition.

In an interview, Alireza Marandi stated, “God has shown great favor to the Islamic Republic and all of us by keeping him [Khamenei] in good health… He is remarkably fit, defying his age.”

Broadcasting these comments, rather than reassuring the public, did the opposite, renewing questions about potential successors.

The Iranian ruling system claims to be both Islamic and a republic, with many nominally elected offices. However, the March 1 elections had the lowest participation rate in the history of the Islamic Republic, with only 41 percent of eligible voters taking part. The wholesale disqualification of reformist and moderate candidates by the ultra-conservative Guardian Council, tasked with vetting candidates, contributed to an unparalleled surge for the most extreme faction within the Iranian system.

For the first time, the top three elected members of parliament in Tehran were from a ultra-conservative group known as Paydari or the Steadfastness Front. The group’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who died in 2021, argued that elections in Iran only occur because the country’s ruler permits them and that the leader can endorse or reject the people’s choices.

Mesbah followers are staunch advocates for the enforcement of religious norms, particularly concerning women, support restricting internet access, and harbor strong anti-American tendencies. Their opposition to any U.S. foothold in Iran or advancement of modernity stems from a belief that such developments would render their ideology obsolete. In this aspect, they align closely with the views of Khamenei.

Historically, representatives from Tehran are the most influential in parliament. It remains to be seen whether the ultra-conservative faction will secure control of the Presidium, or whether an opposing faction of conservatives, led by the current parliamentary speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, will prevail. The composition of the Presidium, which consists of a chairman, two vice-chairmen, six secretaries and three observers, will be determined in June through elections within the parliament. The Presidium has a long list of duties related to the management of the parliament. However, in practical terms, the chairman plays a pivotal role in providing direction to the body and wields significant power to advance his agenda.

The March 1 elections, in addition to choosing a new parliament, selected 88 clerics who comprise the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for choosing a new supreme leader should Khamenei leave the role. Considering Khamenei’s age and that the assembly serves for eight years, it is quite possible that it will get to exercise that responsibility.

As with candidates for the Assembly, the Guardian Council made a systematic effort to purge moderates. Election of a supreme leader requires a a two-thirds majority, thus an influential moderate could potentially assemble a faction to block the conservatives’ preferred candidate. This rationale led to the disqualification of Iran’s former moderate president, an old guard of the revolution, Hassan Rouhani.

According to a March 2 BBC Persian survey of 30 Iranian experts, there is an overwhelming belief that Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba, will be his successor. However, I would challenge this prevailing viewpoint.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution that overturned the Shah, repeatedly denounced hereditary rule as equivalent to an illegitimate monarchy. This view was expressed in a 21-volume collection of speeches, messages, interviews, decrees, religious permissions, and letters, known as Sahifeyeh Imam Khomeini.

Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini in 1989, has also characterized hereditary governance as contrary to Islamic principles. On several occasions, including in a speech in July 2023, he stated that “dictatorship and hereditary government are not Islamic” (though, given Iran’s situation, labeling dictatorship as non-Islamic raised eyebrows).

On March 1, 2024, Ayatollah Mahmoud Mohammadi Araghi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, revealed, “The news reached the leader that the experts are investigating the case of Mojtaba’s leadership. The leader said, ‘What you are doing raises suspicions about the leadership’s hereditary issue.’ So the investigation was not allowed. … On another occasion, when they sought permission from the leader to investigate a person related to him, he responded, ‘No, draw a line under this issue’.”

Supporters of Mojtaba Khamenei’s succession argue that Shi’ite Muslim tradition allows hereditary leadership in the concept of imamate. But religious experts counter that imams are chosen by God, while the supreme leader is elected by representatives of the people, and thus cannot be hereditary.

Those who do not believe Mojtaba will succeed his father also highlight another crucial issue: The system could face accusations of nepotism. Even if untrue, skepticism would likely persist, raising concerns that the Islamic system dismantled a hereditary monarchy and now wants to replace it with its own hereditary system under an Islamic guise.

In the view of this analyst, two other individuals are more likely successors to Khamenei.

Incumbent President Ebrahim Raisi has been tested over the years and has proven his unwavering loyalty to the system. From 1988, when at age 28 he was involved in mass executions of government opponents, until 2019, when Khamenei chose him as head of the judiciary, Raisi has consistently been obedient to the deep state.

Despite a setback in the 2017 presidential election, when he lost to Rouhani, Raisi garnered significant attention from Khamenei and the military-security apparatus. This led to his return to the political stage in 2021, with the system orchestrating his election by disqualifying every plausible candidate from the moderate/reformist camp.

The plan likely aimed to create a social base for him, showcasing his widespread acceptance in society. Some might argue that his presidency has instead revealed his incompetence, rendering him unsuitable for the country’s highest role. But many commentators have said that no one currently possesses the necessary personality and charisma for that position. Iran expert Hossein Bastani maintains that “apart from the fact that public acceptance of the next leader is crucial for the Iranian government, it cannot be denied that the position of each potential leadership candidate is highly unstable within government circles. In other words, even the most prominent clerics whose names have been circulated in the succession competition lack credibility among insiders.”

In fact, a figure like Raisi might be ideal for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which would most likely shape Iran’s domestic and foreign policies behind the scenes in the absence of Khamenei.

It is worth recalling what Khamenei conveyed to the Assembly of Experts seeking to elect him after Khomeini’s death in 1989.

“Apart from the fact that I myself am not really worthy of this position — and I know this, maybe you gentlemen also know — my leadership will be superficial, not real leadership,” he said. “For many gentlemen, my words do not have the validity of the leader’s words. So, what kind of leadership will this be?”

The IRGC and the security-intelligence apparatus are the pillars that supported and emboldened Khamenei. The next leader will likely be unable to wield power without their full support.

The new Presidium of the Assembly of Experts which includes the chairman, two vice-chairmen and two secretaries, could also be pivotal in determining Iran’s third leader. It appears that Alireza Arafi, 67, a member of the new Assembly, stands a strong chance of becoming the chairman of the body.

Arafi’s ascent in Iran’s power structure began in 2001 following his appointment by Khamenei as the head of the World Center for Islamic Sciences (currently called Al-Mustafa International University).Its aim is to spread Shi’ite teachings and ideology globally through branches abroad. In 2016, Arafi was elected as one of seven members of the Supreme Council of Qom Seminary, an organization of Islamic scholars and experts, which is responsible for policy making and macro-planning of seminaries across Iran. That same year, Arafi, who also served as the Friday prayer leader of Qom, a position appointed by Khamenei, was elected by the Supreme Council of Qom Seminary as the director of all seminaries across the country—one of the highest positions in Iran’s religious hierarchy.

Khamenei’s, who had previously hailed Arafi as an “original, intellectual and resourceful jurist,” remarked, “وقع الحق فی محله (the right sat in its place).”

This election, coupled with Khamenei’s commendation of Arafi, further bolstered his standing in Iran’s power structure. In 2018, in another significant stride, Khamenei appointed Arafi as a member of the Guardian Council.

Building on his successes within the system, Arafi secured the top position among the members from Tehran province in the recent elections for the Assembly of Experts, positioning him as likely to lead the presidium. Arafi’s name has been circulating as one of the potential successors of Khamenei since at least 2016.

The only flaw in his resume lies in the color of his turban, which unlike Khomeini’s and Khamenei’s, is not black. Black turbans are traditionally worn by Sayyids, who claim to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammad and Imam Ali, the first Shi’ite Imam. However, it’s worth noting that Hossein Ali Montazeri, a cleric initially appointed Khomeini’s successor, was also a white turban cleric.

Source » stimson