Shahroudi meeting Iraq’s PM Haider Abadi September 2017. (The Iran Project)

By Shatha Al Juburi

Track Persia – November 27, 2017

Iran’s Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor, the revolutionary founding father ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is the most powerful person in Iran. He has an absolute authority over all public and social affairs in Iran.

On July 17, 2017, Khamenei turned 78, his health is said to have been deteriorating, given he has been suffering from a prostate cancer for many years and he has undergone a surgery, according to Iran’s state-run news agencies.  The succession of Khamenei is not publicly debated inside Iran as it is considered a taboo, though there is a formal body responsible for selecting a candidate to succeed him.

Observers are divided about the impacts of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Some of them see his death will mark the biggest political change in the Islamic republic and it might even alter Iran’s foreign policy since the death of his predecessor, ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.  Others are optimistic arguing that those who have been described as reformists, like Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, might be successful in their fighting to fill the vacuum caused by Khamenei’s death.

A large number of Iran experts, however, see the theocratic regime in post-Khamenei era will be controlled by Iran’s most powerful paramilitary body, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) along with  less powerful security and intelligence bodies which Khamenei has been keen to build gradually for many years since took office as Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Because the Islamic Republic has become a deep state, whoever replaces Khamenei is expected to share this deep state’s hard-line views and will be committed to protecting its interests. This argument is based on the fact that the IRGC has become a multibillion-dollar commercial powerhouse that comprises hundreds of companies which employ hundreds of thousands of Iranians and millions more depend indirectly on them for their livelihoods. For example, Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters employs more than 160,000 people.

It has been rumoured that one of the strong candidates that can inherit Khamenei’s role is ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi,  the chairman of the expediency council in Iran and the former head of the Iranian judiciary. Shahroudi was born to a clerical family in Karbala, Iraq in 1948. He immigrated to Iran shortly after Iran’s 1979 Revolution to be a coordinator between the new clerical rulers in Iran and Iraqi Shi’i opposition to Iraqi  President Saddam Hussein’s regime. He serviced as the head of the judiciary from 1999 until 2009. He is close to Khamenei and is a staunch supporter of the wilayat al-faqih, or guardianship of a jurist (a Shi’i concept that gives the right to a Shi’i jurist to rule over all Muslim nations) which was first applied in Iran by the late Khomeini.

Shahroudi once decribed this political Shi’i concept as being “part of the infallible the wilayat (guardianship) of the Shi’i imams.”  However, his potential of replacing Khamenei is low because his critics accuse him of committing human rights violations such as issuing unjust rulings against Iranians when he was in the judiciary including ordering the closure of dozens of newspapers, massive arrests of journalists, students and political activists, in addition to executions of underage prisoners.

In addition to his endeavours to be Iran’s next Supreme Leader, Shahroudi is rumoured that he has been looking for the prospect of becoming the most senior cleric for the Shia in the world after grand ayatollah Ali Sistani’s death, especially Sistan’s advanced age, currently, 86. Sistani is the most senior Shi’i marja (a source of emulation) in the world and also the head of the Najaf-based traditionalist Shi’i establishment which is referred to as the marja’iyya.

Shahroudi’s strong link to the Iraqi most powerful Shi’i factions has encouraged him to prompt himself to succeed the grand ayatollah Sistani. Despite his high religious credentials, it is unlikely Shahroudi will be able to succeed Sistani, given the conservative nature of Najaf school, an anti-wilayat al-faqih, that Sistani represents. Besides, there are other senior maraji in Najaf following Sistani’s school and they have more potential than Shahroudi including the other three most senior maraji, namely Muhammed Ishaq al-Fayadh, Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim and Bashir al-Najafi. According to the norms,  one of the most senior maraja in Najaf can be a successful candidate to lead the marja’iyya if its head dies. Many scholars in the hawza (a religious Shi’i seminary) in Najaf are confident that Shahroudi’s agenda of succeeding Sistan is unlikely to be accomplished because there are several traditionalist maraji who follow the Najaf school as Sistani and have more potential than Shahroudi.

Before his first formal visit to Iraq after the fall of Saddam’s regime last September, Shahroudi had worked hard promoting himself as a senior marja including the launch of his official office in Najaf, a step viewed by many Iraqis as an attempt to lure away Sistan’s followers. The public agenda of Shahroudi’s visit, however, was to unify Iraqi Shi’i factions ahead of May 2018 election, especially because he was the leader of the Iraqi ruling party the Islamic Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq while these members of these parties were in exile in Iran.

Shahroudi visit did not appear to have been successful. In fact, Shahroudi found himself snubbed by some Iraqis. He was not welcomed in Najaf even by the four most senior Najaf-based maraja , including Sistani who refused to meet him. The marja’iyya’s position on Shahroudi’s visit indicates that the Iranian agenda’s of wilayat al-faqih in Iraq, i.e. replacing the traditionalist marja’iyya in Najaf with the Iranian one that adopts the concept of wilayat al-faqih, will unlikely be successful.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.