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Op-Ed: Who will be the next Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic?

Iranian political theorist Reza Parchizadeh and Walton Martin, director of the Iranian Refugees Relief Action Center, explain in a joint article the possible candidates to be the next Supreme Leader of Iran.
Ayatollah Khamanei Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

The model of governance in Iran, the Guardianship of the Jurist, is a system where according to the constitution, a high-ranking Shiite cleric – the Supreme Leader – possesses almost all the power and by fiat presides over the workings of a government whose sole purpose is to maintain and export an eternal Islamist revolution. This is a unique totalitarian system that came into being as the convergence of historical, ideological and strategic factors at a certain point in time, sometime between the 1960s and the 1990s. Indeed it can be fairly assumed that the Guardianship of the Jurist is a byproduct of the Cold War between the East and the West in the Middle East.

However, as many of those factors have ceased to exist or dramatically changed in the passage of time, and as there are a great number of phenomena that are pulling the system apart both from inside and outside, that system has become dysfunctional – if it can be said to have really functioned at one time. In other words, it is a failed system with many inside divisions and its social base is increasingly dwindling given the many failures of the system. That is why it is being drawn more and more into the Sino-Russian sphere of influence for it needs their political and occasionally military umbrella to survive.

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As such, the system is least likely to be able to maintain itself after the death of the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is the linchpin of the dysfunctional system and when he is gone, the system is very much likely to tumble into chaos. The most important reason is that while the system works around the person of a charismatic character, with Khamenei gone, there is no individual of that caliber in the regime to fill his shoes. What is foreseeable at this point in time is that the system will evolve into a religious-military complex where IRGC generals and certain high-ranking clerics rule the country together with the military doing most of the real ruling while putting forward a cleric as a figurehead.

But even that won’t save the system. As pressure keeps mounting against the regime both from inside Iran and the international community, the regime is least likely to survive in the long run. Nevertheless, if there is going to be a next Supreme Leader by a stroke of luck for the regime, he is likely to be one of the following three:

Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (b. 1948). He was Chief Justice of Iran (1999-2009). He was also Chairman of the Assembly of Experts until 2015 and is currently First Vice-Chairman of the Assembly. He has been a member since 1999. He is also on the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council. Shahroudi is one of the prominent “Iraqis” – high-ranking Shiite double-nationals – of the Iranian regime. Born in Najaf, he became the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and is also a member of the Da’wa Party. He moved to Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He has a good standing in the system and has following among both the traditional and the political sectors of the regime. He can be a proper pick for a figurehead. The Russian state media Sputnik that expresses the Kremlin’s stance sees him as the top candidate, mentioning that Khamenei has somewhere named him his next in line.

Sadeq Larijani (b. 1961). He has been Chief Justice of Iran since 2009. He has also been Member of the Assembly of Experts since 1998. He used to be on the Guardian Council. Another prominent Iraqi, Larijani belongs to a powerful clan of brothers that includes Ali Larijani (Speaker of Parliament), Mohammad-Javad Larijani (strategist and Foreign Ministry advisor), Bagher Larijani (Chancellor of Tehran University of Medical Sciences), and Fazel Larijani (former cultural attaché in Ottawa). He is the son-in-law of the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani, one of the influential seminary teachers in Qom. His relationship with Khamenei is good and he has frequently praised the office of the Guardianship of the Jurist. Larijani is close to the security forces and the IRGC. He is currently on the sanctions list of the European Union for his widespread violation of human rights as head of Iran’s judiciary. Given his family ties and his good relationship with the security apparatus and IRGC, Larijani is likely to secure consensus among the various regime sectors to become the next Supreme Leader. He is also younger than Shahroudi, which might prove a practical factor.

Dishonorable mention: Mojtaba Khamenei (b. 1969). He is the second son of the current Supreme Leader and has no official standing in the regime. He has become notorious due to his association with the the security forces and the IRGC to tamper with various elections. He is also known to have taken a hard line against the 2009 protests. His appearing to have taken an active role in those events led to the popular belief that he might be a candidate. But the prospect of his becoming the next Supreme Leader is slim. Individuals must be groomed for that position by assuming various official roles and playing the game in the public. Mojtaba has not done so and it can be assumed his father has put restrictions on his public activity since 2009.

Ebrahim Raisi (b. 1960). He is currently Custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, the shrine of Imam Reza (the 8th Imam of the Shiites) in Mashhad, which is a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Since 2012, he has also been the Prosecutor-General of the Special Court for the Clergy. Before that, he was Attorney-General of Iran (2014-2016); Deputy Chief Justice of Iran (2004-2014); and Attorney-General of Tehran (1990-1995). He has also been a Member of the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council. Raisi’s father-in-law is the powerful Mashhad Friday prayer Imam and Grand Imam of Imam Reza shrine. Ahmad Alamolhoda. Hossein-Ali Montazeri (1922-2009), the dissident cleric, in his memoir named Raisi as a member of the “death committee” that carried out the mass execution of Iranian political dissidents in 1988. He is also known to have taken a hard line against the 2009 popular uprising, demanding harsh punishment for protestors.

Raisi seems to be a favorite of the Supreme Leader. Almost all his appointments have been either directly decreed or suggested by Khamenei. His appointments to the Astan Quds Razavi and Special Court for the Clergy are exceptionally important as profile-raisers. As soon as he was appointed Custodian of Astan Quds, the Iranian press started to refer to him as “ayatollah,” which is the second-greatest rank in the Shiite hierarchy. Senior level IRGC generals have also been seen to publicly endorse him. Most recently, a number of prominent members of the Assembly of Experts have asked him to run for president in the upcoming election next June, yet another “appointment” that is likely to be bestowed upon him by the system and the Supreme Leader. As such, Raisi’s rapid rise through the ranks can strongly suggest that he is being groomed by Khamenei and the IRGC to be the next Supreme Leader of Iran.



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