Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran saying Eid Fitr prayers on 15 June 2018. (IRNA)

By Track Persia

December 14, 2020

The recent absence of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s de facto ruler, from political scene has raised speculations about a possibility of his death or a serious deterioration of his health that might have stopped him to rule, especially he is currently 81 years old and according to many reports, he is in poor health.

The rumours about this most powerful figure in Iran have also thrown the spotlight on what might happen if he did, who might succeed him and what the most likely scenarios that might unfold in the post-Khamenei era, domestically and internationally. These critical questions have not been asked since the death of Iran’s former supreme leader and founder of the Islamic Republic Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.

The significance of the position of the supreme leader in Iran comes from the fact that it is not only political but it is also religious. Since its establishment more than four decades ago, this position has given its holder the highest political authority and the Islamic Republic has only witnessed one succession when Ayatollah Khamenei was appointed as the supreme leader to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini.

After the establishment of the Islamic Republic,  Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was the head of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. When he was announced the supreme leader, he also became the wali al-faqih (the clerical jurisprudent who presumably leads all Muslims across the world of all Islam sects) and he was at the time a grand marja (a source of religious emulation with following) in accordance with Iran’s constitution. Therefore, Khomeini held the Shiite religious title ‘grand ayatollah’, the highest prestigious Shiite title that represents the seniority of a mujtahid (a cleric who can issue religious edicts such as declaring jihad).

Iran’s Assembly of Experts for the Constitution proposed in 1979 a constitution based on the idea of wilayat al-faqih ( the guardianship of a clerical jurisprudent). The proposal was later approved in a referendum in 1980. This step was aimed to allow Khomeini to hop political leadership and eliminate the traditional duality between political and religious authority.

It is worth mentioning that Khamenei was not the first candidate to succeed Khomeini. The Assembly of Experts of the Leadership, according to the 1979 constitution, has the responsibility of selecting the next supreme leader after the demise of a supreme leader. 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, 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. Montazeri criticised the violation of human rights in Iran under Khomeini, that led Khomeini to denounce Montazeri as ineligible to succeed him after his death. Khameini was then chosen as the new supreme leader after the death of Khomeini on June 3, 1989.

The designation of Khamenei as the new supreme leader was a breach of Iran’s 1979 constitution because he was not qualified for the position given he was not a high-ranking member of the clergy neither was he was a marja as Khomeini. The breach of the constitution was first prompted by Khomeini’s letter before the latter’s death. The letter authorised the assembly to remove the criterion of marja from the qualifications for leadership in the constitution and to be replaced by the criteria of being just 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 at the time was president, made a fundamental change in the Iranian constitution to allow Khamenei to be Iran’s next supreme leader by not stipulating that the supreme leader should hold the title of ‘grand ayatollah’ which Khamenei did not hold. When Khamenei was appointed as the new supreme leader he was not even qualified because he was not even recognised as a mujtahid at the time. The grand clergy in Qom did not bless this designation.

A supreme leader of Iran enjoys significant powers and he is 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 shapes Iran’s policies and approach to the outside world.

The death of Khamenei does not only could change Iran forever, but it could also affect the entire region and reverberate around the world. Since has been in as Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei fuelled hostility between Iran and the United States and Israel and this has led to years of tension and instability.

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 he is. Iran experts think that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) will try to prevent any candidate they consider unfavourable from succeeding Khamenei. However, anecdotal accounts claim that Khamenei’s favourite candidate could be his Khamenei’s 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 political prisoners in 1988.  Since has taken his current role, Raisi has increased his media presence and has staged a so-called “war on corruption”. Like Ali Khamenei, Raisi is a sceptic of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal and is strongly allied with IRGC. Despite losing in the 2017 presidential election, the Supreme Leader appointed Raisi as the head of Judiciary and the latter has never refuted rumours about his aspirations to become the next Supreme Leader. Many of Raisi moves suggest that he is being groomed for the 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.

On the whole, the wave of protests that have hit Iran since the disputed presidential elections in 2009, one of the premises of the future of Iran is that in the absence of Khamenei there will be a sort of reform in the Iranian political system because Khamenei has always supported hardliners and conservatives and stood against any sorts of democratisation in the Islamic Republic. therefore it is most likely the scene will change after Khamenei dies.

About Track Persia

Track 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.