In 2018, after the suppression of the Green Movement following the disputed presidential election of 2009, Iran witnessed another wave of uprisings. Despite temporarily disrupting the life of the state, Iran's 2018 protests were not successful in undermining the Islamic Republic. In the absence of any foreseeable fundamental change, observers of Iran agree on two premises regarding the future. First, reform from above and among the political elites is the safest, most stable way for the Islamic Republic to make the transition into a more normal and democratic regime. Second, this reform from above is impossible without the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the strongest man in Iran's political structure.
Because Ayatollah Khamenei has always supported a conservative, hardline agenda and worked against any form of "democratization" or "normalization" of the Islamic Republic, the opportunity for change from above may only come after he leaves the scene. However, Iran's transition to a new supreme leader is a real possibility in the near future. Ayatollah Khamenei is 80 and, according to many reports, in poor health. Therefore, it is vital for observers of Iran to understand both the mechanism of succession and possible successors.
This paper will focus on internal Iranian debates concerning both the formal and the informal procedures and mechanisms for selecting the next supreme leader, while also examining regime dynamics and political preferences. This paper will attempt to answer key questions: What are the likely scenarios that might unfold following Khamenei's long tenure? More broadly, how might Iran's domestic and foreign policies change under a new supreme leader?
SUCCESSION: THE HISTORY
Four decades after its establishment, the Islamic Republic has only witnessed one succession, when Ayatollah Khamenei was appointed as the new supreme leader. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic 10 years earlier, Ayatollah Khomeini was announced as the valy-e faqih, the supreme leader in accordance with Iran's constitution. Khomeini was the head of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A decisive majority of the population also recognized him as marj-e taqlid (source of emulation).
The 1979 constitution, proposed by the Majles-e Khobragan-e Qanon Asasai (Assembly of Experts for the Constitution), was based on the idea of velāyat-e faiīh (guardianship or mandate of jurists). The new document, approved in a referendum in 1980, aimed "to eliminate the traditional duality between political and religious authority, or between ‘customary government' (ḥokūmat-e ʿorfī) and ‘hierocratic government' (ḥokūmat-e šaṛʿī) in Iran."1
According to the 1979 constitution, an Assembly of Experts of the Leadership should be elected to choose the next supreme leader after the demise of Ayatollah Khomeini. From 1979 to 2017, five Assemblies of Experts of Leadership (AOEOL) have been formed: the first, 1983-90; the second, 1991-99; the third, 1999-2007; the fourth, 2007-17; the fifth, 2017-25. The First Assembly of Experts (AOE) was the most important in the history of the Islamic Republic. It designated Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as Khomeini's successor in 1985.2 This selection was unconstitutional, however; according to Article 107 of the 1979 constitution, the assembly did not have the right to choose a successor before the current supreme leader had died or had been dismissed.3 The AOE had two main responsibilities: first, selecting the next supreme leader after the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini; second, dismissing him should he become incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties or lose one of the qualifications required for the position — mentioned in Articles 5 and 109. Thus, designating a successor to Khomeini was not one of the first of the AOE's duties; but because the health of Khomeini deteriorated after 1980, the Assembly decided to designate Ayatollah Montazeri as successor in 1985.
Ayatollah Montazeri's appointment marked the beginning of a power struggle. Concerned about the future after the demise of Ayatollah Khomeini, an alliance was formed to replace Montazeri. It included Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the parliament and de facto commander-in-chief of the military between 1982 and 1989; Hojatoleslam Ali Khamenei, Iran's president from 1981 to 1989; and Khomeini's son and "right-hand," Seyyed Ahmad Khomeini. The political events between Montazeri's selection in 1985 and his dismissal in 1989 show how this power bloc contained Montazeri and prepared for his dismissal. First came the arrest of his son-in-law's brother, Seyed Mehdi Hashemi, who was accused of terrorist activities. Then, the gap between Ayatollahs Khomeini and Montazeri widened when the latter criticized the violation of human rights in Iran under Khomeini. In a letter of March 26, 1989, Khomeini denounced Montazeri as ineligible to succeed him as the legitimate leader of the state.4 Montazeri resigned two days later.5
Khomeini died shortly afterward, on June 3, 1989. On the day following his death, the Assembly of Experts officially dismissed Montazeri and, in a manipulated session, chose Hojatol-Islam Khamenei, Iran's president at that time, as the new leader. The details of the meeting were not published for almost three decades, but a video was leaked of the June 3, 1989 session which, along with other fragments recalled by members of the assembly, sheds light on how the AOE works.
In a quick vote, a small group of clergy — orchestrated by Rafsanjani — influenced the members to select Khamenei as the new leader.6 His selection was unconstitutional; according to the 1979 constitution, the supreme leader should be a high-ranking member of the clergy and a source of emulation, but Khamenei was only of middle-rank. Khamenei himself accepted that he was not qualified for this position:
Regardless of the fact that I do not truly deserve to occupy such a position, installing me as the caretaker has technical problems. [My] leadership would be formal [only on paper], not a real one. Well, based on the Constitution, I am not qualified for the job and, from a religious point of view, many of you [all clergy members of the Assembly of Experts] will not accept my words as those of a leader. What sort of leadership will this be?7
The assembly was authorized to vote for him, however. In a letter before his death, Khomeini asked for the removal of the criterion of marjaiyaet from the constitution. The election was neither directed nor blessed by the Grand Clergy in Qom.8
Since the selection was provisional until a referendum approved the new constitution (in the process of being drafted when Khamenei was chosen), the AOE reconfirmed its decision in July 1989. According to the new constitution, the criterion of marjaiyat was removed from the qualifications for leadership, replaced by the criteria of either being an Islamic jurist or a mujtahid (a person who has the authority to perform ijtihad from its sources — including the Quran, the hadith and Aql — and the authority to decide all jurisprudence issues).9 Even with this change, Khamenei was not qualified, since he was not even a full jurist or mujtahid at the time, according to information in the leaked video of the closed-door session of the Assembly of Experts (AOE).10
Immediately after becoming the supreme leader, Khamenei tried to control the assembly, and the AOE has become more conservative and even hardline. The assembly, which, according to the constitution, has the power to put limits on who can be a candidate, delegated its power to the Guardian Council. This paved the road for the disqualification of reformists.11 For the election of the second assembly, many candidates from rival groups were disqualified, as were non-clerics and female clerics, for not having sufficient Islamic credentials.12 Out of 178 who registered, 62 were disqualified and 12 withdrew during the registration period or afterward. In seven provinces, the number of candidates equaled the number of seats; in the rest of the provinces, the number of candidates was either less than or close to the number of seats available.13
The process of containing and neutralizing the Assembly of Experts continued during the third election, in October 1998, when the Guardian Council disqualified the majority of reformist candidates. "Less than half of the 396 applicants, [who] had to demonstrate the proper political inclination, were allowed to compete in the October 1998 Assembly of Experts election."14As a result, conservative candidates won the majority of the 86 seats (at least 54), while moderates won 13, and 19 went to candidates "whose affiliation was unclear but who probably lean toward the conservative camp."15
This scenario was repeated in the election of the fourth assembly on December 2006, in which many reformists were excluded from running; only 33 percent of the applicants were approved by the Guardian Council.16 The fourth assembly (2007-2016) became very controversial, especially after the emergence of the Green Movement and the conflict between Rafsanjani and Khamenei over the 2009 presidential election. Rafsanjani, who was a close ally of Khamenei, was elected chairman of the assembly in 2007 after the death of Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the longstanding chair of the assembly. But because of the emergence of a gap between Iran's supreme leader, who supported Mahmood Ahmadinejad, and Rafsanjani, who supported the reformist candidate in 2009, the latter was replaced by a conservative cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani, in 2011. The AOE selected the hardline Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi as chairman of the assembly after the death of Ayatollah Kani in 2014.
In the 2016 election of the fifth assembly, out of the 801 candidates, the Guardian Council approved only 166, about 21 percent.17 All the female candidates were disqualified, and only one non-cleric was approved by the Guardian Council and selected by the people. Many reformist clerics were again disqualified, including the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, due to a lack of Islamic credentials. The results of the election were mixed. In Tehran, moderates were able to defeat hardliners and unseat prominent clerics like Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the former chair of the assembly.18 Ayatollah Ahmad Janati entered the AOE from Tehran as the last and only person from the hardline camp. Out of these 88 elected to the assembly, 15 are appointees of Iran's provincial super-leaders.19
The fifth Assembly of Experts (2017-2024) is significant mainly because of the possibility that a new supreme leader might be selected during its term, if Ayatollah Khamenei dies or steps down.
STRUCTURE OF THE AOE
According to Iran's constitution, the Assembly of Experts is responsible for choosing the next leader if the current leader quits, is dismissed (loses his qualifications criteria) or dies. The members will serve an eight-year term. According to the internal regulations of the AOE, only upper-level clerics (mujtahids) are eligible — those who have permission to perform ijtihad (the derivation from sources, including the Quran and the hadith, and the authority to decide points of religious conduct).20 Sunni ulema can also serve in the Assembly of Experts.
Members of the Leadership Council, elected for two years in 2018
• Ahmad Jantai, also the head of Guardian Council (chairman, 91-years-old)
• Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani, the current Secretary-General of the Combatant Clergy Association (first vice chairman).
• Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of the Expediency Council (second vice chairman, died in December of 2018)
• Abbas Ka'bi Nasab, member of the Guardian Council.
• Ahmad Khatami, Tehran's substitute Friday prayer leader (secretary)
• Seyed Hashem Hosseini Bushehri (cultural supplier or Karpardaz-e farhangi)
• Ebrahim Raisi, the Custodian of Astan Quds Razavi (financial supplier or Karpardaz-e Mali)
While, according to the constitution, the AOE legislates its own affairs (including the "qualifications" of the members, the "manner of their elections" and the "internal regulations," independently of any outside supervision or approval), the Guardian Council became the body responsible for reviewing the qualifications of candidates since 1990. By the order of Khamenei, The Guardian Council not only approves their ijtihad qualification; it also approves the political knowledge and leanings of candidates.21
The assembly has an internal structure consisting of a Leadership Council or Secretariat (Dabirkhane) and six commissions or committees to implement its duties and missions. The Leadership Council consists of a chairman, two vice chairmen and two secretaries selected by secret ballot for a term of two years. The chairman is elected by an absolute majority of experts present.22 Vice chairmen, secretaries and two coordinators are elected independently through a plurality of secret votes for a term of two years. The Leadership Council is the core body of the assembly, consisting of the most influential people. In addition, the assembly has several committees, each consisting of 13-15 members and a board of five. Each committee presents its report to the Leadership Council at the first future meeting.23
The Board of Directors of the Financial and Budget Commissions
• Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi (chairman)
• Hashem Bataei (vice chairman)
• Abas Ali Solaimani (second vice chairman)
• Ali Moalami (secretary)
• Askar Dirbaz (secretary)
• Mohmmad Hosseini Shahroudi (coordinator or Mokhber)
These committees include financial and budgetary commissions, which manage essential affairs of the assembly. This includes the Article 108 commission, responsible for drafting laws and regulations for the assembly itself. The Commission for Protecting and Promoting the Guardianship of Islamic Jurisprudence is another subdivision of the AOE. The commission was established to study efficient methods of protecting the principle of the Guardianship of Islamic Jurisprudence and promoting it through compiling and publishing such studies and providing answers for frequent questions about the principle of velayat-e faqih. The Social and Political Commission is a committee of the assembly that focuses on increasing the social and political knowledge of assembly members. The commission invites civil and military officials to discuss significant national and international issues that are indirectly related to the duties of the assembly. A new commission, created on the advice of the supreme leader in 2018, is the Thinking Commission (Heyat-e Andishvarz). The head of this commission, which is supposed to work as the brain of the assembly, is Ayatollah Janati, chairman of the AOE.
The Board of Directors of the Articles 108 Commission
• Ahmad Behshti (chairman)
• Reza Ramazani (first vice chairman)
• Mohsen Araki (second vice chairman)
• Mohsen Kazeroni (secretary)
• Askar Dirbaz (secretary)
• Mohsen Qomi (coordinator or Mokhber)
Two of these commissions are the most important: the Article 111 and Article 107 Commissions, which respectively focus on "supervising" the current supreme leader and selecting the next one. In accordance with Article 111 of the constitution, the assembly is responsible for monitoring the supreme leader's qualifications, stated in Articles 5 and 109. They are also responsible for the dismissal of the supreme leader in case he loses one of his qualifications or any attributes included in these articles.24 In fact, according to Article 111, the assembly can theoretically remove the supreme leader from power. The Article 111 commission, the Investigation Commission (Heyat-e Tahqiq), consists of seven members. Its reports are secret and only sent to the Leadership Council.25 According to the First Assembly, members of the Investigation Commission should not be relatives or appointees of the supreme leader. This regulation was altered in 1993 by the Second Assembly, making it possible for the supreme leader's appointees to be members of the Investigation Commission, of which all members are appointed by the leader.
The Board of Directors of the Commission of Protecting and Promoting the Guardianship of Islamic Jurisprudence
• Hasan Alemi (chairman)
• Mohsen Hidari (first vice chairman)
• Abolhassan Mahdavi (second vice chairman)
• Abolkarim Farhani (secretary)
• Rahim Tavakol (secretary
• Mahmood Mohmmadi-Araghi (coordinator or Mokhber)
The Article 107-109 commission consists of 11 members and has two jobs. The first is to study and prioritize qualifications for leadership, as well as management skills, political vision and legal knowledge. According to the constitution (amended in 1989), the leader should have the following qualifications: 1) be a mujtahid and have scholarly qualification for issuing religious rulings (fatwas) concerning jurisprudence; 2) possess the required justice and piety for leading the Islamic community; 3) have the "proper political and social vision"; and 4) possess prudence, courage, high administrative capability, and the power for leadership. If there are a number of candidates who meet these qualifications, the one with more political and jurisprudential insight has priority.26
The Board of Directors of the Social and Political Commissions
• Abdolmahmoud Abdollahi (chairman)
• Mohmmad Ali Taskhiri (first vice chairman)
• Mohmmad Hosseini Shahroudi (second vice chairman)
• Alirez Eslamian (secretary)
• Mohmmad Mirbagri (secretary)
• Ali Moalami (coordinator or Mokhber)
The commission's second job is to review and evaluate candidates who potentially can be the next supreme leader. According to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died in 2018 under mysterious circumstances, the AOE had a list of two main candidates for the next supreme leader. Rafsanjani's claim was confirmed by other members of the assembly.27 This is a job for an internal committee, in the 107-109 commission, consisting of three clerics. This committee is responsible for finding, monitoring and evaluating the most qualified candidates, and passing their names on to the Leadership Council.28 Other members of the assembly do not have access to this highly confidential information.
The Members of the Thinking Commission
• Ahmad Jantai (chairman)
• Abbas Ka'bi Nasab (member of the Guardian Council)
• Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi (former minister of intelligence)
• Mohsen Araki (head of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought)
• Abolghasem Vafi Yazd
• Abdolmahmoud Abdollahi
• Mohsen Qomi
• Mohmmad hadi Abdekhodaei
• Seyed Hashem Hosseini Bushehri
• Mahmood Mohmmadi-Araghi
• Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi (Iran's head of judiciary)
SELECTION OF THE LEADER
How the experts of the assembly will choose the next supreme leader is a mystery that depends on many variables. Ayatollah Khamenei can affect the selection of his successor while he is alive, to make sure he is a "revolutionary" — a requirement he always asked the assembly to respect. But the selection and announcement of his designated replacement can be problematic and even lead to a power struggle, as in the case in the 1980s with the selection of Ayatollah Montazeri.
The selection of the next supreme leader after the demise of Ayatollah Khamenei is also challenging. The leaked video of the closed-door meeting of the AOE shows how a small group of clergy influenced and directed the process of selection in favor of Khamenei. Learning from the previous experiment, the study of the political and institutional alignment of the core members of the assembly and their relationships with the political blocs are important.
The Board of Directors of the Articles 111 Commissions
• Ahmad Jantai (chairman)
• Mahmood Hashemi Shahroudi (first vice chairman)
• Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani (second vice chairman)
• Hashem Hosseini Bushehri (secretary)
• Ebrahim Raisi (secretary)
• Ahmad Khatami (coordinator or Mokhber)
The Board of directors of the Articles 107 and 109 Commissions
• Mohmmad Momen (chairman, died in February of 2019)
• Morteza Moghtadai (first vice chairman)
• Hashem Hoseyni-Bushehri (second vice chairman)
• Ebrahim Raisi (secretary)
• Abolghasem Vafi Yazd (secretary)
• Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi (coordinator or Mokhber)
POLITICS OF THE EXPERTS
Two main political groups, the moderate or interactionist wing and the hardline conflictualist faction, emerged after the signing of the much-discussed nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers in July 2015. The two differ on domestic and international policy, as well as on the social and economic orientation of the country. The interactionist bloc consists of reformists, pragmatists (modern conservatives), and traditional conservatives who supported Rouhani and former president Mohammad Khatami. Their power is concentrated within the state administration and bureaucracy. The conflictualists are made up of hardline conservatives, including the supreme leader, clerics in the Guardian Council, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij civil militia. They shaped what Iranian scholars refer to as the "deep state" in Iran.
The hardliners believe in the re-islamization of society, as well as increased government control over morality and stronger cultural engineering. Hardliners believe that self-reliance and resistance against the hegemonic powers of the West will solve Iran's problems. They push for a self-sufficient and isolated "resistance" economy that limits imports and increases domestic production. They also favor continuing Iran's historical stance of selective engagement, as they fear the penetration of Western norms and the pushback of the West against Iran's clerical establishment.29 The most important hardliners in the Assembly of Experts include Ayatollah Ahmad Jantai, chairman of the assembly; and Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami and Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi, the secretaries of the Leadership Council.
Moderates or "pragmatists," on the other hand, support "limited social and cultural liberation," calling for engagement with the rest of the world and accepting the realities of the international order. Some of the most influential personalities associated with the moderates include President Hojatoleslam Hasan Rouhani; Hojatoleslam Seyed Mahmud Alavi, the minister of intelligence; Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, a member of the Expediency Discernment Council (EDC); and Ayatollah Mohammed Emami-Kashani.
While moderates and hardliners are two important factions in the AOE, another group can be categorized as independents, people with no clear political leaning. Most of them are not politically active and have different and even contradictory positions, sometimes in favor of the "pragmatists" and sometimes in favor of the "hardliners." Important members of this group are Ali Malakouti and Seyed Abolfazl Mirmohmadi. The independent group is the most significant when it comes to making decisions, as their swing votes can change the outcome.
The results of the last AOE election were mixed, with some interpreting the result as a victory for moderates, who claimed they won 59 percent of the seats and defeated prominent hardline clerics like Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the former chair of the assembly.30 This optimistic interpretation was challenged, however, when members of the assembly chose one of the most prominent hardliners, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, as its chairman with 51 votes.31 Janati's rival from the moderate camp, Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, received just 20 votes. It seems that the hardliners have an upper hand in the assembly, especially after their bigger victory in 2018, when they reelected Janati with 66 votes, consolidating their power in the AOE.
In addition to the political alignment of the members of the assembly, their affiliation to religious schools is another variable that will help explain their decision. Four main Shia seminaries influence Iranian politics. While, historically, the Najaf (Iraq) seminary is the most respected among Shia clergy, the Qom seminary has become more important for Iranian politics, especially after the 1979 revolution. In addition to Najaf and Qom, the renown of the seminaries of Mashhad and Isfahan has also grown under the clerical regime, and they now play a greater role in Iran's politics.
Each of these seminaries has its own characteristics. Najaf belongs mainly to the tradition of Shia quietism, particularly the separation of state and mosque, which is critical to the idea of the Guardianship or Mandate of Jurists (velayat-e faqih). The Qom seminary is known for the study of Islamic philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and exegetical methodology. The Mashad seminary has a tradition of literature and poetry and a critique of philosophy. It insists on purifying Islam of "foreign" knowledge, giving it another name: the School of Epistemological Distinction. Isfahan is the least important seminary, but it has a long history. Furthermore, it was renewed after the victory of the Islamic Republic, especially in 1996, when Ayatollah Mazaahiri moved from Qom to Isfahan to manage and expand the seminary. It is now under the influence of a hardline cleric.
All members of the Assembly of Experts are rooted in one or more of these seminaries. By studying the political, religious and institutional alignments of members of the Leadership Council (and of the investigation commission and Article 107 commissions), one finds that the hardline clergy have the upper hand in choosing candidates for the next supreme leader. A few potential candidates have a higher chance of becoming the successor to Ayatollah Khamenei: Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, the head of the Expediency Council, member of the Guardian Council and younger brother of the speaker of parliament; Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi, the former custodian of Astan Quds Razavi and new head of Iran's judiciary, and President Hassan Rouhani. In addition to these three other potential candidates are Ayatollah Alireza Arafi, chairman of Al-Mustafa International Shia University; Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, chairman of the World Forum for the Proximity of the Islamic Schools; and Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri, chairman of the Academy of Islamic Sciences at Qom.
Choosing which of these men can or should be selected as the next supreme leader is not simply an internal decision made by the members of the assembly. Many outside actors play a role, through bargaining, co-opting and coercing the members, such as the government, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the office of Ayatollah Khamenei (Bit-e Rahbari).32 However, we can see by analyzing the political and religious alignments of the Assembly of Experts and the members of the relevant assembly commissions, that the next supreme leader is likely to be among this group of favorites.
While studying Iran's political factions can give us some idea about who will be the next supreme leader, looking to Iran's power blocs and key players is a better way to understand the question of succession. Since 1979, three main elite power blocs and the interactions among them have shaped Iranian policy: the clergy, the military/security forces and the technocrats. The interrelationships have led to the emergence of new combinations, the three key ones being the clergy-military, the clergy-technocrat and the technocrat-military.
In the 1980s, the clergy-military alliance was dominant, the clergy having the upper hand. In the 1990s, power shifted in favor of the technocrats and against the IRGC. During the Hashmi and Khatami period (1989-2004), the clergy-technocrat alliance dominated. Power shifted again under Ahmadinejad, as the IRGC-technocrat alliance became the most influential group and the political base of his hardline administration (2005-12). Currently, under Rouhani's presidency, the technocrats have returned to power and are responsible for shaping government policy, while the IRGC has become marginalized, at least in the administration.33
Using this framework, we can sort members of the Assembly of Experts into three categories: those close to the clerical network (Howzeh) and others close to the bureaucracy or the Revolutionary Guard. For example, President Rouhani represents the clergy-technocrat alliance, while Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi, new head of Judiciary represents the clergy-military/security alliance. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is also close to the alliance of the clergy and the military (IRGC).
People who are close to these axes — meaning the clergy-military and the clergy-technocrats — have their own particular political, social, cultural and even economic orientations, so the dominance of one group over another has a crucial impact on both domestic and foreign policies. A leader close to the clergy-military axis will support the social and political agenda of hardliners at seminaries and in the security and military apparatus. Iran's foreign policy will be selective engagement with the East, mainly China and Russia, and expanded influence in the Middle East. A leader from this axis will try to satisfy its social base (conservative and religious social groups), so he probably will block any efforts toward social and cultural liberation. On the other hand, a leader close to the clergy-technocrats will possibly have a more pragmatic approach to social and economic problems. Because of its political base, he will probably ease the ideological and religious pressure on society, tolerate a limited social and cultural openness, and strengthen the technocrats and bureaucrats in decision making. He will probably follow a realist approach to the West and attempt to integrate Iran into the global economy. Those who are affiliated with the clergy-military can move Iran in a different direction compared to leaders who are closer to the clergy-technocrat axis. The future of the Islamic Republic will be shaped by the abilities of these axes to influence the appointment of the next supreme leader.
The Status Quo
In this scenario, the members of the Assembly of Experts will select one of the clergy close to the military-security alliance, someone who will be supported by both the IRGC and the Office of Ayatollah Khamenei. Since the core members of the assembly are radical clergy, close to him and his office and the IRGC, they can influence the vote of other members by coercing them to select a close ally. The new leader will be radical, like his predecessor, and supported by radical clergy and the IRGC. This is even more likely if the AOE chooses his designated successor while Khamenei is still alive. This is the most possible scenario; Ayatollah Khamenei is a politician interested in institution building and will likely choose his successor before he dies.34 He has mentioned that his successor should be a revolutionary and has asked members of the assembly not to be "timid." His office, the core of Iran's deep state, is likely to support a hardliner. The radical clergy in seminaries and the IRGC are likely to back the same candidate.
Among these hardline candidates, newly promoted Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, the new head of Iran's judiciary, has the best chance. The former custodian of Astan Quds Razavi and the prosecutor of the Special Court of the Clergy, Raisi is a student of Ayatollah Khamenei and the son-in-law of Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda. He is also the Friday prayer leader in Mashhad, a hardline stronghold. Both he and his father-in-law were elected in the 2016 assembly and have a good relationship with the IRGC . Although Raisi's defeat in the 2017 presidential election has been seen as a negative point for Raisi in the race for leadership (though he did get more than 16 million votes), the popular vote was not a concern for the experts of the assembly. They chose as their chairman Ayatollah Janati, who had received the least votes in Tehran.
Raisi's experience as the prosecutor of the special court of clergy, which aims to silence critical clergy members, and as the former custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthiest religious foundation, strengthen his position in Iran's seminaries. As one of the main members in the Assembly of Experts, Raisi sits on all its commissions. He is one of 8 members of the secretariat of the assembly, the main body of the assembly, and serves on the commission of 107, which is responsible for nominating potential candidates for the position of the supreme leader. In fact, in 2017, more than 50 members of the assembly supported his presidential campaign against President Rouhani.
Moreover, like Ayatollah Khamenei, Raisi not only belongs to the Qom-Mashhad seminary schools' tradition but wears a black turban, which indicates that he is a descendant of Prophet Muhammad. This confers a great deal of seniority in clerical culture and much respect (by contrast, his most important rivals, Rouhani and Larijani, wear white turbans).
In addition to Raisi, two other candidates supported by radical clergy and parts of the IRGC are Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri, and Alireza Arafi. Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri, chairman of the Academy of Islamic Sciences at Qom, has a close relationship with the hardline cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and his political wing, the Front of the Islamic Revolution. His chance decreased when he was not elected to the assembly in 2016. Ayatollah Alireza Arafi, the head of Iranian seminaries and chairman of Al-Mustafa International Shia University, is another hardline candidate.35
Transition to Pragmatism
If the clergy-technocrats are successful in influencing the assembly members' decision making and choose a person close to the state bureaucracy, Iran can transition to a more normal country. The current head of Iran's Expediency Council, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani and President Hassan Rouhani are two possible candidates likely to be backed by the moderates. Larijani has strong religious credentials, support among the seminaries and of his illustrious family (his brother is the influential speaker of the parliament, and his father-in-law is Grand Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani). Although Khamenei appointed him as the new head of the Expediency council, and a member of the Guardian Council, he was recently accused of corruption, and his daughter was accused of being a spy.
While Rouhani was the odds-on-favorite to replace Ayatollah Khamenei, especially after signing the nuclear deal in 2015, his prospects have diminished since last year. Rouhani, who was elected twice by the popular vote in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, has lost popularity, as the economy continues to suffer. As president, Rouhani can theoretically influence the outcome of the assembly through co-optation and even coercion. Although Rouhani still has the support of Iranian technocrats, as well as traditional clerics who prefer a division between political and religious leadership, Ayatollah Khamenei's office and the IRGC are unlikely to back him. President Rouhani's extensive clerical, security and bureaucratic background can still help to shape an alliance of political elites, but his chance currently is almost nil.
If the next supreme leader is not held in favor by the IRGC, there is the possibility of a coup, as the IRGC is one of the main power groups that can influence the decisions of the assembly. There is also the possibility of an alliance between the IRGC and the technocrats in which the next supreme leader will be the puppet of the IRGC. In this case, Iran would be transformed into a military bureaucracy. There are already some signs that the IRGC might be moving in that direction, but Ayatollah Khamenei would have to give the order.36
An Odd Scenario
In addition to the above possibilities, there is another: shaping a provisional leadership council, which could change the future of the Islamic Republic. According to Article 111 of Iran's constitution, if the current supreme leader dies or has been dismissed, the Assembly of Experts should immediately hold a session and select his successor as soon as they can. However, until then, a Provisional Leadership Council (PLC) will take over the leader's responsibilities. Members of this council include the president, the head of the judiciary, and one of the grand clerics (fuqaha)37 of the Guardian Council, who is selected by the Expediency Discernment Council (EDC). According to the same article of the Constitution, the EDC can also replace members of the Provisional Leadership Council if they cannot do their jobs. In any case, two members of this council would be the faqih. The Provisional Leadership Council has all the responsibilities of leadership, except in a few cases in which their decision has to be approved by three out of four members of the EDC. These cases include determining the regime's main policies, ordering a referendum, declaring war or peace, and appointing the commanders of the armed forces. It is well to remember that the PLC will be predominantly hardliners, since all of the clerics in the Guardian Council and nearly 80 percent of the members of the Expediency Discernment Council are hardliners who were appointed directly by Ayatollah Khamenei.
While having a pragmatist as the next supreme leader does not guarantee the democratization of the Islamic Republic (Ayatollah Khamenei was known as an intellectual before he was selected as supreme leader), a hardliner will likely move Iran toward more authoritarianism domestically and more aggressive interventionism abroad. A hardline supreme leader will probably continue Khamenei's internal and external policies, the Islamization of Iran, and the strengthening of the Axis of Resistance. It will also perhaps block the possible process of normalization and de-radicalization. A weak leader, chosen with the help of the IRGC and Ayatollah Khamenei's office, will be a puppet in the hands of the Guard commander, as the late Abbasid caliphs were in the hands of the Turkish army.
1 Amir Arjomand, 9892, "The Constitution of the Islamic Republic," Iranica, 6, fasc. 2, 150-158, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/constitution-of-the-islamic-repub….
2 Farhi Farideh, "The Assembly of Experts," Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace, http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/assembly-experts.
3 Sussan Siavoshi, 2017. Montazeri: The Life and Thought of Iran's Revolutionary Ayatollah, (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 119.
4 "Ayatollah Khomeini's Letter Dismissing Montazeri," http://irandataportal.syr.edu/letter-dismissing-montazeri.
5 Elaine Sciolino, "Montazeri, Khomeini's Designated Successor in Iran, Quits Under Pressure," New York Times, March 29, 1989, http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/29/world/montazeri-khomeini-s-designated….
7 Shocking Video Clip From 1989 Shows Khamenei Elected Only For One Year As A Caretaker, Radio Farda, January 09, 2018, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/video-showing-khamenei-election-supreme-lea….
8 Ahmad Sadri, "The Varieties of Religious Reform: Public Intelligentsia in Iran," International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15, no. 2, (Winter 2001): 275.
9 Saeid Golkar, "Clergy-Military; Securitization of Seminary Schools in Iran," Journal of Contemporary Islam (2017): 220.
10 "Khamenei Doubted His Legitimacy," Iran Wire, https://iranwire.com/en/features/5092.
11 Ahmad Reza Taheri, The Baloch in Post Islamic Revolution Iran: A Political Study, Taheri Entrepreneurship Co. Daneshyaran of Humanities, 43.
12 Farideh Farhi, "The Assembly of Experts," IP.
13 Farshad Malek-Ahmadi, Democracy and Constitutional Politics in Iran: A Weberian Analysis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 85.
14 William Samii, "Iran's Guardian Council as an Obstacle to Democracy," Middle East Journal, 55, no. 4 (Autumn 2001): 643-663, 648.
15 Hossein Akhavi-Pour & Heidar Azodanloo, "Economic Bases of Political Factions in Iran," Critique: Journal for Critical Studies of the Middle East, 7, no. 13, 69-82, 70.
16 Clifton W. Sherrill, After Khamenei: Who Will Succeed Iran's Supreme Leader? Orbis 55, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 631-47, esp. 635.
17 Sharq newspaper, No. 2506, September 29, 2015, http://www.magiran.com/npview.asp?ID=3305360.
18 "Moderates Dominate Council of Clerics in Iran Elections," Al Jazeera, February 29, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/moderates-dominate-council-cleric….
19 Khabar Online, https://www.khabaronline.ir/detail/767152/Politics/parties.
20 Saeid Golkar, "Clergy-Military; Securitization of Seminary Schools in Iran," 220.
21 Historically, a member of the clergy could become a mujtahid after receiving permission to perform ijtihad from three teachers or well-known mujtahid, but in the last and disputed session of the first assembly of experts, in 1990, the outgoing members of the assembly transferred their right to the six ulama of the Guardian Council.
22 "Structure of the Assembly of Experts," http://www.majlesekhobregan.ir/en/ashnayibamajlesView.html?ItemID=3294.
24 Supervision has been interpreted within a narrow scope, since Ayatollah Khamenei has been completely against supervision of the assembly over his power. See Amir Faress "Secret Leadership: Who Will Oversee Iran's Overseers?" The Guardian, February 16, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2016/feb/22/iran-secret-lea….
25 Malek-Ahmadi, Democracy and Constitutional Politics in Iran, 83.
26 Islamic Republic of Iran Constitution, http://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/ir/ir001en.pdf.
27 Ali Alfoneh, "Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran: The Rise of the Revolutionary Guards," The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (2019), 16, https://agsiw.org/political-succession-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-….
28 "The Law and Regulation of the Assembly of Experts: An Interview with Ayatollah Tahri Khormabadi," Journal of Islamic Government, http://www.majlesekhobregan.ir/fa/publications/mags/is_gv/magazines/008….
29 Saeid Golkar, "Iranian Winds of Change?" Horizons, Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development, no. 9 (Summer 2017): 146-57.
30 "Moderates Dominate Council of Clerics in Iran Elections," Al Jazeera, February 29, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/moderates-dominate-council-cleric….
31 Rohollah Faghihi, "How Iranian Conservatives Seized Assembly of Experts Chairmanship," Al Monitor, May 30, 2016, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/iran-assembly-expert….
32 For example see: Mehdi Khalaji, Supreme Succession: Who Will Lead Post-Khamenei Iran? (Policy Focus 117, February 2012), https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus1…
33 Adopted from Saeid Golkar "Configuration of Political Elites in Post-revolutionary Iran," Brown Journal of World Affairs 23, no. 1 (Fall-Winter 2016-17): 281-292.
34 M. Boroujerdi & K. Rahimkhani, "The Office of the Supreme Leader: Epicenter of a Theocracy," in Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (Indiana University Press, 2016), 135-65.
35 Mehdi Khalaji, "The Shiite Clergy Post-Khamenei: Balancing Authority and Autonomy," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Research Note no. 37 (2016).
36 Saeid Golkar, "Is a Military Coup Possible in Iran?" Al Jazeera, April 24, 2018.
37 As of publication, the six clergy members of the Guardian Council are Ayatollahs Ahmad Janati, Mehdi Shabzendedar Jahromi, Mohammad Reza Modarresi-Yazdi, Mohammad Yazdi, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, and Mohammad Momen.