Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wearing a protective face mask, attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (AP)

By Track Persia

April 23, 2021

As the health of Iran’s Supreme Leader and senior religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the de facto ruler of Iran, is deteriorating rapidly, speculations about who might succeed him are hotly debated.

The position of Iran’s next supreme leader has become more significant after the passing of Khamenei. Generally, whoever assumes this role should be a ‘marja’, a source to follow who is jurisprudentially able to deduce religious decrees. The 1979 Iranian revolution change the religious and political feature of the country when for the first time the marja Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became Iran’s supreme leader, the de facto ruler, after leading the revolution to overthrow Pahlavi dynasty.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic more than four decades ago, the position of the supreme leader has given its holder the highest political authority. The Islamic Republic has only witnessed one succession when Ayatollah Khamenei was appointed as the new supreme leader after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death on 3 June 1989.

Traditionally, the path to becoming a marja is difficult and time-consuming, given it requires decades of study and the ability to engage in ijtihad, which is deducing new rules from existing law. Those who aspire to become maraji (plural of marja) should be involved in giving lessons about the advanced level of fiqh (Islamic Shiite jurisprudence), in addition to receiving the permission of two or three grand ayatollahs, the highest authorities in Shiite Islam.

Besides having a good relationship with power centres, the candidate should have access to abundant finance. Good finance enables the candidate to attract more followers. A Non-politicised with good finance cleric usually attract the students who seek monthly stipends. These clerics are mainly funded by wealthy merchants and the public in the form of Khoms; charity money paid by religiously devote Shia to their maraji.

Generally, traditionalist clerics favour the separation of the hawza ( Shiite religious seminaries ) from the state. Therefore, they don’t have the backing of the theocratic regime in Iran, though, they have support from the public. Moreover, they have repeatedly come under fire from hardline rivals for allegedly sowing “secularism” among the seminaries in Qom.

Selection of Iran’s supreme leader

After the death of Khomeini, the elevation in clerical rank to reach the position of the supreme leader is not anymore hard-fetched. The most important criterion for selecting the candidate is that he should be empowered by the Iranian theocracy. The latter may also assist a cleric in enticing new followers, such as enabling the construction of a seminary school or mosque. Other sources of advantage include having ties to centres of power, belonging to an important clerical family and getting attention in the media.

Iran’s Hardline Society of Seminary, which is empowered by the regime in Iran, is in charge of vetting the elevation of a marja. Nonetheless, a large number of senior clerics is contesting in power struggles for elevating their own religious status in the hope of succeeding Khamenei. That said, those clerics who aspire to succeed Khamenei should not belong to the traditionalist clerics who do not prefer to get involved in political affairs. Rather, these clerics should be loyal to wilayat al-faqih (the rule of a cleric), a Shiite ideology that grants a senior Marja the power of ruling. It has been used as the basis of the Iranian theocracy since the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979 that overthrew the Shah Pahlavi.

When announced as Iran’s supreme leader, Khomeini also became the wali al-faqih, the clerical jurisprudent who presumably leads all Muslims across the world of all Islam sects.

Moreover, Iran’s Assembly of Experts for the Constitution proposed in 1979 a constitution based on the idea of wilayat al-faqih that was later approved in a referendum in 1980. This new law was aimed to allow Khomeini to hop political leadership and eliminate the traditional duality between political and religious authority.

Khomeini held the Shiite religious title ‘grand ayatollah’ (a source of religious emulation with following), the highest prestigious Shiite title represents the seniority of a mujtahid (a cleric who can issue religious edicts such as declaring jihad).

According to this constitution, the Assembly of Experts of the Leadership has the responsibility of selecting the next supreme leader to succeed a demised one. In 1985, this body selected Grand ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as Khomeini’s successor when the latter’s health deteriorated after 1980. However, an alliance between Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader who was Iran’s president at the time and Akbar Hashimi Rafsanjani, the then chairman of the parliament, along with Khomeini’s son Ahmad Khomeini against Montazeri along with the widening gap between Khomeini and Montazeri led the way for the resignation of Montazeri. The latter criticised the violation of human rights in Iran under Khomeini, which led Khomeini to denounce Montazeri as ineligible to succeed him after his death. Khamenei was then assigned as the new supreme leader after the death of Khomeini on June 3, 1989.

The designation of Khamenei as the supreme leader was a breach of Iran’s 1979 constitution which only quality a high-ranking marja for this position, however, Khamenei was not even a Marja. The breach was first prompted by Khomeini’s letter shortly before his death. The letter authorised the assembly to remove the criterion of the marja from the qualifications for leadership in the constitution. It replaced this criterion with the requirement that he should be at least a mujtahid (a cleric who has the authority to perform ijtihad from Quran and Islamic tradition).

After the death of Khomeini who held the Shiite religious title of ‘grand ayatollah’, the highest title a mujtahid can hold, proponents of Khamenei who the then the president, made a fundamental change in the Iranian constitution to allow Khamenei, who did not hold the title of ‘grand ayatollah’  to be Iran’s next supreme leader. Khamenei was not even qualified to be the supreme leader because he was not even recognised as a mujtahid. Consequently, the grand clergy in Qom did not bless Khamenei’s designation.

A supreme leader of Iran enjoys significant powers and he is usually above the law. Over the last three decades, Ali Khamenei has ensured the election of conservatives to the assembly which would follow his guidance on choosing his successor. Once elected, the supreme leader may remain in this position for life. He has the final say on the most important issues and he can shape Iran’s domestic affairs, in addition to influencing regional and sometimes international affairs.

The death of Khamenei will not only change Iran forever but will also affect the entire region. It reverberates around the world. Since appointed as Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei fuelled hostility with the United States and Israel and their allies and this consequently led to years of tension and instability towards Iran.

It is still not clear who will succeed Khameini after his death, but it is clear that there is no single figure is as powerful as the current supreme leader. Iran experts think that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) will try to prevent any candidate who they consider unfavourable from succeeding Khamenei.

However, anecdotal accounts claim that Khamenei’s favourite candidate could be his son, Mojtaba, or Ebrahim Raisi, who is currently Iran’s Judiciary Chief. Besides holding several posts in the judiciary, Raisi is serving as the deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts. However, Raisi lacks popular support because of his human rights record, particularly his role in the mass executions of the political prisoners in 1988.  Since assuming his current role, Raisi has increased his media presence and staged what so-called “war on corruption”. Like Khamenei, Raisi is a sceptic of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal and he is strongly allied with IRGC. Despite losing in the 2017 presidential election, the Supreme Leader appointed Raisi as the head of the Judiciary. He has never refuted rumours about his aspirations to become the next Supreme Leader. Many of Raisi moves suggest that he is being groomed for this role.

Other figures who have shown interest in the position are Raisi’s predecessor Sadeq Larijani, and the current President Hassan Rouhani. However, both are not as strong candidates as Raisi.

The most likely scenario after the passing of Khamenei is that Iran will witness a new phase in its religiopolitical system. One of the premises on the future of Iran is that with the absence of Khamenei there will be some sort of reform in the Iranian political system. Khamenei always supports hardliners and conservatives and he stands against any sorts of democratisation in the Islamic Republic.

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.