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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Long Road to Choosing a New Leader in Iran

Filed under: Iran, Israeli Security, Nuclear Warfare
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

 Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

No. 603     September-October 2014

  • Recently, questions of who will succeed Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei (now 75) and of the nature of the body that will elect him have returned to the Iranian agenda.
  • The recent death of Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani left a vacuum in the Assembly of Experts, the only revolutionary institution that has the authority to elect, oversee, and depose the Leader of Iran.
  • Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 80, seeks a central role in determining Khamenei’s successor. In the past, he faced harsh disputes with some senior clerics and with leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
  • Since its establishment, the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has gradually expanded, eventually including political functions.
Rafsanjani visits the Leader after surgery - Iran
Rafsanjani visits the Leader after surgery 1

Over the past two weeks, at a sensitive time both domestically and in terms of foreign relations, the question of who will succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (now 75), and of the nature of the body that will elect him, have returned to the Iranian agenda. At the beginning of September the second Leader of Iran was hospitalized for prostate surgery, and rumors again circulated that he has prostate cancer. Pictures published after the operation showing the Leader hiking in the mountains outside Tehran, were meant to indicate that it was business as usual regarding his health and he had returned to his normal routine.

Overseeing the “Leader”

On October 21, little more than a month after Khamenei’s much-publicized hospitalization, Ayatollah Mohammadreza Mahdavi Kani died at the age of 83. He had been chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a body that comprises 86 clerics and oversees the Leader’s performance and fitness for service, and is also entrusted with electing Iran’s next Leader. The assembly is also designated to advise the Leader on the declaration of war. In 1989, a few hours after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, the Assembly of Experts elected Khamenei as his successor, leaving the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who was considered the natural candidate to replace Khomeini, and his supporters frustrated.

These two recent events have implications for the election of the next Leader of Iran. They also indicate the struggles between the different power groups, both within the “conservative” camp itself (that continues to lament its defeat to Hassan Rouhani in the Iranian presidential elections) and between the conservative camp and the “reformist” camp.

Mahdavi Kani had served as chairman of the Assembly since March 2011 after his predecessor in the position, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was forced to quit the race because of harsh disputes with some senior clerics and with leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Subsequently Rafsanjani expressed support for the reformist Mir-Hossein Musawi, who ran against Ahmadinejad in the fraudulent elections of 2009 and aligned himself with Iran’s “moderate” camp while exacerbating the rift between himself and the conservatives and the IRGC.

Rafsanjani, 80, seeks a central role in determining Khamenei’s successor and is currently chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council.

Article 10 of the Iranian constitution gives the Leader many powers with regard to shaping Iran’s Islamic nature, foreign policy, and military development with an emphasis on its nuclear program; hence the importance of the post of chairman of the Assembly of Experts. At the present sensitive moment, when the unclear state of Khamenei’s health is in the headlines and it is sometimes reported that he has terminal cancer, the post is all the more important.

Members of the Assembly are elected by the citizens of Iran every eight years. As in the elections for the Majlis and for the presidency, however, the candidates are first vetted by the twelve-member Guardian Council of the Constitution, some of whose members are appointed by the Leader. As a result, recent years have seen an increase in the power of the conservatives in the Assembly of Experts. Apparently this influence will increase further because of the likelihood that clerics who supported reformist trends and the Green Movement in 2009 will not get past the screening of the Guardian Council.

A Delicate Balance of Power

The anticipated struggle over the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts is very significant for Iran at this juncture, both in the domestic and foreign arenas. It will likely reflect the delicate and complex balance of forces in the Iranian leadership between, on the one hand, President Hassan Rouhani and former president Rafsanjani, who backs Rouhani behind the scenes and provides a tailwind to his policy, and on the other, the rightist-radical wing of the conservative camp, which has the support of the IRGC and the Leader’s office. To some extent Rouhani’s election stymied the erosion that had occurred in Rafsanjani’s status. Rafsanjani is also considered a “darling” of the Western states, which continue to view him as someone who can put Iran on a course of constructive dialogue on various issues including its nuclear program.

Elections for the Assembly of Experts are only supposed to be held early in 2016, and it is meanwhile worth avoiding a disruption of the fragile balance of power. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who replaced Mahdavi Kani when his health began to deteriorate in June, will continue in this post until the elections.

The death of Mahdavi Kani, considered a senior figure among the “traditional conservatives,” will likely have the effect of boosting the power of right-wing hard-line conservatives such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and of the Endurance Front led by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. The hard-liners will seek to enhance their status as the February 2016 elections approach.

The Election of the Next Leader

The newly elected assembly (that is supposed to serve until 2024) will be especially significant given the high probability that it will be the body that elects the next Supreme Leader. A hint of the struggles behind the scenes, and of the depth of the rivalry within the conservative camp, can be seen in the fact that Mesbah Yazdi did not send a condolence message after Mahdavi Kani’s death.2

The election of the next Leader will not be a simple matter.  Along with political and economic considerations and delicate domestic power balances, there are currently no leaders with the status of the first Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. It was his unique endowment with both religious and political qualifications, along with his great charisma, that led to the overthrow of the Shah. No candidate whose name now appears on the list can lay claim to such attributes.

At present the short list of names for the post of chairman of the Assembly of Experts includes Rafsanjani, who, as noted, had already held the position (2007-2011) until Kani’s election. In the past Rafsanjani was counted among the supporters of Khamenei and also contributed to his election as Leader; later, tension grew between the two as Rafsanjani gained support in the West and extended support to reformist presidential candidates.

After the death of Mahdavi Kani, Rafsanjani announced that he may again run for the post of head of the Assembly of Experts – “if no one worthy competes for the post.” It is possible that Rafsanjani prefers to avoid a head-to-head struggle against the Leader and the Revolutionary Guard and will back candidates of his own behind the scenes, much as he backed Rouhani in the latest presidential elections.  One way or the other, Rafsanjani and his family can expect to be the targets of criticism from the radicals in the conservative camp, criticism that will grow as the battle to succeed the Iranian Leader approaches.

In the “traditional conservative” camp, the names include former heads of the judiciary, Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and Mohammad Yazdi, and current judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani. The latter is the brother of Ali Larijani, chairman of the Majlis. As for the camp of the right-wing hard-line conservatives, the names being raised include Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Ayatollah Abbas Vaez Tabasi, and Ahmad Khatami, leader of Friday prayers in Tehran. Some of the candidates mentioned had ties with Supreme Leaders in the past: Mojtaba Khamenei, Khamenei’s son, is close to the hard-line conservatives, and Hassan Khomeini, Khomeini’s grandson, supports the “traditional conservatives.” In any case, the religious establishment in Qom (Hawza), which has great influence over Iranian politics and to whom senior political officials make “pilgrimages” from time to time, will likely influence the makeup of the final list of candidates for the Leader’s position.

The conservative camp, with its different shadings and factions, is marked by constant tension. Although this is not evident on the surface, behind the scenes struggles are waged to exert influence over the Leader and over the revolutionary path of Iran. The ultimate goal of all the streams is to maintain the Islamic regime and ensure its continued survival. For example, all of the conservative streams favor ongoing progress in the nuclear program as a guarantee for this survival.

Return of the Shark?

At the same time, Rafsanjani (nicknamed “the shark”) remains a central figure in Iranian politics, despite the ups and downs of his career stemming particularly from his tense relations with the IRGC, which is trying to stymie his attempted domestic and foreign-relations reform, and with the Leader. He reportedly is seeking to promote a more liberal economic policy and open Iran to foreign investment, just as in the period of his presidency. Thus in the West, which persists in perceiving “good” and “bad” actors in Iran, Rafsanjani is sometimes called the “good conservative.” Despite Iran’s nuclear progress, which has run parallel to more than ten years of negotiations, and ongoing human rights violations (including the defiant October 25 execution of Reyhaneh Jabbari, accused of killing her rapist in 2007), under the “moderate” Rouhani’s presidency, the West clings to such a differentiation as it seeks to achieve a dialogue with the “moderate elements.”

Rafsanjani was among the Iranian leaders who tried, without success, to contain or limit the IRGC’s increasing influence over the years and who recognized the danger of its ascendancy. He also continues to be regarded as their historic rival and as the one who subtly persuaded Khomeini to end the war against Iraq. Article 150 of the Iranian constitution states that “the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was established in the first days of the victory of this revolution, will continue in its role of protecting the revolution and its accomplishments.”

Since its establishment the IRGC’s role has gradually expanded, eventually including political functions. Graduates of the IRGC find a place in Iranian politics and thereby influence the status of the IRGC in Iranian society and economy. It is the IRGC that determines what means are used to “protect the values and achievements of the revolution.” Behind the scenes, the IRGC has sway both over candidates for the position of Leader and over deliberations within the Assembly of Experts on electing the next Leader. The IRGC will not allow an assembly to be elected that ultimately will not elect a Leader who is to their liking.

The presidency of Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), himself an IRGC graduate, was a “golden age” for the organization, which seeks to revive the earliest days of the revolution and the revolutionary fervor that is manifested, among other things, in exporting the revolution and supporting terror organizations. Under Ahmadinejad’s two-term presidency, retired IRGC officers were appointed to the cabinet, provincial, and other key political posts. Since the revolution, the various missions that the IRGC has taken upon itself have changed it, and its role in Iranian society has grown beyond recognition.

From scattered, loosely connected groups in various Iranian cities before the revolution, the IRGC has become a hub of economic-military power that gradually transformed into a political power as well, which sometimes impinges both on the religious establishment and the Leader. Can Rafsanjani, who has somewhat rehabilitated his power since Rouhani was elected, counter the IRGC just when it is at its peak, from a position of influence in the Assembly of Experts? It appears that as the years pass and the IRGC fortifies its power, that task becomes harder and harder.

On several occasions in the past Rafsanjani proposed the election of a “jurisprudential council” composed of several senior clerics instead of the election of a Leader. The idea gained no traction and the Leader himself acted to thwart it. Now, when the issue of a successor has again arisen, this proposal could possibly return to the Iranian agenda as a sort of compromise between the different power brokers competing over electing the Leader. In any case, the atmosphere surrounding the possible election of a new Leader has energized both the conservative streams, which seek to ensure the continuation of the Islamic Revolution and are perturbed by Rouhani’s approach, and the reformists who seek to bolster his approach.

Wanted: A Skilled Maneuverer

In any case, Khamenei, who took part in the funeral ceremony for Mahdavi Kani, has the most extensive powers in Iran with regard to its Islamic nature, critical foreign policy issues, and military development, and particularly over the red lines that Iran sets in its nuclear negotiations.

Khamenei is commander of the armed forces, and also the one who appoints the head of the judiciary, the head of the Broadcasting Authority (IRIB), and over half the members of the Guardian Council of the Constitution. In several cases it was also Khamenei who ordered the house arrest of leaders of the Green Movement such as Hussein Musawi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Meanwhile, the Leader continues to maneuver carefully between the country’s power centers and influential groups, aiming to ensure that no group or faction becomes dominant and can challenge his authority. Khamenei, who because of his lack of religious seniority was not the preferred choice to succeed Khomeini, has managed during the 25 years of his tenure to consolidate his status, bring the IRGC to his side, and concentrate great economic power in his hands, all the while skillfully maneuvering among the power holders. The next candidate for Leader will also need such maneuvering skills, at least as good as those of the current Leader.

No Influence over the Red Lines

In sum, the process of replacing Mahdavi Kani in about another year-and-a-half can serve as a sort of an indicator of the balance and struggle of forces among the different streams in Iran’s current domestic arena. The Assembly of Experts constitutes a mirror that reflects the power balances, particularly within the conservative camp. The main question is whether the conservative camp will unite its ranks as the elections for the Assembly of Experts approach, or continue to be divided in a way that caused it to lose the recent presidential election. The conservative camp is now putting its house in order and might succeed in closing ranks behind an agreed candidate in the time remaining before the Assembly of Experts elections,

The death of Mahdavi Kani did leave a vacuum in the only revolutionary institution that has the authority to elect, oversee, and depose the Leader of Iran. It does not appear, however, that his death and the inception of the struggle over his replacement (with the elections anticipated for the beginning of 2016) will lead to a dramatic change in Iran’s foreign policy, particularly not with regard to the nuclear talks and the advancement of its nuclear program, where Iran continues to demonstrate resolve.

The connection between, on the one hand, Khamenei’s operation and the wave of rumors it inspired about his illness, and on the other, the death of the head of the Assembly of Experts, has intensified concern, both regarding the domestic and international arenas, over the implications of Khamenei’s  death, his possible successor, and the succession process. The events come at an especially sensitive time in which Iran faces critical junctures. In the domestic sphere, a fierce battle is being waged between Rouhani, who wants to promote reforms, and extreme conservative elements to whose dictates and actions (such as executions or acid attacks on women) he sometimes has to submit. The ongoing decline in oil prices (now near $80 a barrel) makes it harder for Rouhani to fulfill his promises to voters and undermines budgetary plans, while playing into the hands of the Leader and the IRGC who call for a resistance economy. Meanwhile, in the foreign sphere, the nuclear talks are approaching a major watershed on November 24 while, in the background, the Leader’s red lines are being sharpened3 (with the probable result being a further time extension), and Iran is involved in the struggle against Islamic State, including possible coordination with the United States and the infusion of Iranian forces into the warfare in Iraq.

Khamenei’s Red Lines

On October 12, after his operation, Khamenei posted on his English Twitter account his “red lines” on the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group. The list will make it difficult for the Iranian negotiations to maneuver in their talks with the West.  Khamenei instructed members of the delegation, for instance, to insist on continued nuclear R & D, to resist any impositions from the other side, to protect the enrichment facility in Fardow, to demand an enrichment capacity of 190,000 SWUs (Separative Work Units) – one of the core and most difficult issues in the nuclear talks, and to delink the talks from the issue of sanctions.

As posted on Khamenei Twitter account

Khamenei wants to make clear internally to domestic political powers and externally to the international community that he continues to be in charge of all things related to the nuclear issue.  It appears that during the coming months’ maneuverings of the various political camps over “the battle for the next Leader of Iran,” Khamenei will continue to signal that he holds the reins of power. He intends to navigate Iran through stormy waters on the way to strengthening the Islamic Revolution at home and the completion of the nuclear project to assure the future of the Islamic regime in Iran.

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