If Ayatollah Khamenei Dies, What Next?

Preparing for the post-Khamenei era.

10653322_941581589191709_3639992395284817096_nThe news regarding the health of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has become unprecedented in the last few months. Several other indications suggest that Khamenei's health is not only deteriorating but it is cause for a security concern. For example,  following Khamenei’s recent surgery on his prostate, high level officials such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Hassan Rouhani, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made an unprecedented visit to the ailing leader.

This issue raises the question of what will happen if Iran’s current Supreme Leader, who has the final say in the Islamic Republic’s domestic and foreign policy affairs, dies. Who would be the successor? Will the Islamic Republic refashion its foreign policy towards the West, particularly the United States and Israel?

First of all, we have to understand Iran’s political structure and power relations in order to develop possible projections. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Velayateh Faqhih, is chosen by the Assembly of Experts, which has 86 members. According to Iran’s revised constitution, “In the event of the death, resignation, or dismissal of the leader, the (Assembly of Experts) shall take steps within the shortest possible time for the appointment of the new leader. Until the appointment of the new leader, a council consisting of the president, head of the judiciary, and a jurist from the Guardian Council, upon the decision of the nation’s Expediency Council, shall temporarily take over all the duties of the Leader.”

Although Iranian people elect the members of the Assembly of Experts, it is crucial to point out that the Guardian Council, another crucial political power, vets the candidates beforehand. Only the previously selected members can run for the Assembly of Experts. In other words, the election is just a façade and purely ceremonial. In addition, the turnout for the elections for the members of the Assembly of Experts has always been very low. This is due to the fact that many Iranian people question the legitimacy of these candidates or do not believe that their votes can bring fundamental change.

The members of the Guardian Council, on the other hand, are either directly selected by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (six members), or by the Judiciary and Majlis, Iran’s parliament (the other six members).

The other key player in making decisions in selecting the next Supreme Leader is the Expediency Council, which oversees disputes over legislation between the Guardian Council and the Islamic Republic’s parliament. It is worth noting that the members of the Expediency Council are also selected by the Supreme Leader. In other words, the aforementioned political bodies have never questioned the decisions, the power, or the political and divine authority of the Supreme Leader.

The Most Crucial Player in Post-Khamenei Era

Without a doubt, when it come to choosing the next Supreme Leader and making a decision on the nation’s post-Khamenei era, the most powerful political organization is Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). First of all, the IRGC not only militarily and politically controls the domestic and foreign affairs of the Islamic Republic, but it also owns main economic sectors of the country. Under the rule of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps gained more power to suppress domestic oppositions and intervene in domestic affairs of other countries in the Middle East. In addition, the senior cadre of IRGC has control over Iran’s nuclear program.

As a result, having control over the economy, military, politics, and nuclear program, the IRGC will wield the most influence in choosing the next Supreme Leader. Although the Assembly of Experts might ceremonially elect another Ayatollah, the future Supreme Leader will have been chosen by the high officials of IRGC in advance. This suggests that it is likely that the IRGC leaders already have an option or list of names in their agenda.

Nevertheless, the key question is what kind of cleric or political figure will the IRGC be looking for as the next Supreme Leader. Although some scholars have put out some names of influential Ayatollahs and clerics as potential and prospective Supreme Leaders for the Islamic Republic, it is less likely that the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps will desire to choose a powerful Supreme Leader who would fully control their activities. In other words, a charismatic, powerful and influential Ayatollah and political figure will be considered a threat to the rule of the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The best option for the IRGC is a weak figure whom they can control.

Even when Khamenei was selected, he was considered a weak candidate in comparison to more powerful figures such as Ayatollah Montazeri or Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at that time. At the time, Khamenei was not even a Mujtahed, a senior jurist who can issue fatwas. As time passed, Khamenei consolidated his power by marginalizing powerful opposition clerics and giving more power to the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In addition, the IRGC will attempt to choose an individual who serves the IRGC’s objectives: obtaining nuclear capabilities, having a monopoly over economic and political affairs, having power in foreign policy and having the capability to intervene in other countries' affairs without hurdles from any political figures including the Supreme Leader.

In other words, the senior cadre of the IRGC will attempt to further consolidate its political and economic power by selecting a weak candidate. It follows that one should not expect any fundamental changes in the Islamic Republic’s domestic or foreign policies even if Supreme Leader Khamenei dies. In fact, the power of the elite of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps will increase, and their pursuit for regional hegemonic ambitions will intensify.

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