Who will be Iran's next Supreme Leader?: Rumors, rivals and the race for succession

Who will be Iran's next Supreme Leader?: Rumors, rivals and the race for succession
With key figures barred from the upcoming Assembly of Experts elections on 1 March, the search for Iran's next Supreme Leader gains significance.
5 min read
28 February, 2024
An Iranian cleric speaks during Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in the old Iranian Parliament building in Tehran, 26 September 2023. [Getty]

In June 1989, when millions were mourning Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader (1979-89), a power struggle unfolded in the Assembly of Experts, tasked with choosing a new leader for the Islamic republic. During one of its meetings, Ali Khamenei, then-president and the current Supreme Leader, addressed the assembly on 4 June, expressing a unique sorrow.

Khamenei stated, "In fact, the Islamic society should cry blood if even the idea of someone like me being proposed [for leadership] is announced in it."

On that day, the then-parliament speaker and a king-maker in post-revolution Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, proposed Khamenei for leadership. Rafsanjani convinced assembly members that in private meetings with Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader had supported such an idea before his death.

Despite that, Khamenei further clarified: "Technically, there are challenges with this matter, and my leadership would be purely ceremonial. Neither constitutionally nor according to [Islamic] sharia would my directives find acceptance among many."

On that same day, the assembly appointed Khamenei as the interim supreme leader – a position not even mentioned in Iran's constitution. Thirty-five years later, Khamenei became the most powerful person in the country, with orders that superseded the constitution and even Sharia law. All his political rivals have either been eliminated or have died.

However, with new members of the Assembly of Experts set to be elected on 1 March, the question arises: who will succeed the 85-year-old leader, whose health has been deteriorating in recent years, according to various reports?

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Who is the next leader?

In Iran's post-revolution history, the only time the successor to a supreme leader was publicly known was between June 1985 and March 1989, when the Assembly of Experts designated Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri as Khomeini's successor.

However, following increasing criticisms by Montazeri due to the mass execution of leftist political prisoners in 1988, Khomeini sacked him two months before his death. Rafsanjani then engineered a vote that led to the appointment of Khamenei as the supreme leader.

Since then, no other person has been publicly designated as his successor. However, over the years, different clerics were suggested to become the country's supreme leader after Khamenei's death.

One of them was Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, appointed by the Supreme Leader as Chief of Justice in 1999, and whispers about him being the designated leader gained momentum. But nothing was officially announced, and Shahroudi died in 2018.

Since then, two other names have been at the centre of rumours about Khamenei's successor: his son Mojtaba and President Ebrahim Raisi. However, many analysts suggest that it is impossible to consider either of these two as actual nominees for the post due to the various political and economic stakeholders who play a role in ruling the country.

Mojtaba Khamenei, 55, is a Shia cleric in the rank of Ayatollah, who has largely stayed away from the public scene but played a vital role in Beit-e Rahbari, the office of the Supreme Leadership Authority.

This office, directly or indirectly, exerts control over the establishment's three executive, legislative, and judicial branches. According to some reports, Mojtaba has gained more power in his father's office since December 2020 due to Khamenei's deteriorating health.

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However, many suggest that Mojtaba cannot be appointed as a future supreme leader due to a lack of practical experience in high-ranking political offices.

Moreover, some analysts, such as Majid Mohammadi, suggest that no one can sit on a throne in Iran without the backing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the country's most powerful military and economic institution.

"It is not known whether the members of the National Security Council, the IRGC Intelligence Organisation, and the commanders of this force would agree on Mojtaba. If they are against anyone, that person would definitely not become a leader; even if he is from Khamenei's office," Mohammadi stressed.

The same rule applies to Raisi, who is now serving as the president. Moreover, many believe that Raisi's incompetence as a political figure and his embarrassing mistakes in simple speeches make it impossible for him to become the next leader.

Despite all these speculations, no one can even determine the future candidate for the highest position in Iran's theocracy. This adds more importance to the upcoming election of the Assembly of Experts on 1 March.

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How the Assembly of Experts operates

The Assembly of Experts consists of 88 faqih, Shia theologians, elected by the public for eight years. However, this does not mean that the assembly members are those whom the people want. On the contrary, a well-designed vetting process makes it possible only for candidates supporting the Supreme Leader to run for this election.

The Guardian Council plays a vital role in this process, removing all clerics who could potentially have the slightest disagreement with the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader directly or indirectly appoints the 12 members of this council. The council comprises six faqih appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists introduced to the parliament by the country's chief justice. The members of parliament then appoint those six members.

However, the Supreme Leader appoints the chief of justice himself, and the Guardian Council vets the members of parliaments. This web makes it impossible for anyone disagreeing with the Supreme Leader to enter the Assembly of Experts.

In January, former president Hassan Rouhani, former intelligence minister Mahmoud Alawi and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a former minister and prosecutor pivotal in the massacre of political prisoners in 1988, were banned from running in this round of elections, highlighting the reasons behind the exclusions.

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As candidates with substantial chances of success were barred from the elections, the Guardian Council further solidified its influence by disqualifying potential rivals. One notable case is Ibrahim Raisi, who entered the race from the South Khorasan province alongside four other candidates, only for all of them to be disqualified, leaving Raisi uncontested in the upcoming election.

Many refer to this process as the establishment's latest attempt to have a fully obedient Assembly of Experts that would not challenge the person imposed as the next Supreme leader by the main power holders such as the IRGC and Beit-e Rahbari.

Mohammad Jawad Rouh, the editor-in-chief at the pro-reformist Ham Mihan Daily, explained this aspect in an opinion piece: "The main reason for Rouhani's disqualification is the concern about his possible role in future developments and influencing the succession process and equations."

"The possibility, even if it is small and far from the mind, is so important that it forces the designers of the political future project of Iran not to ignore it," Rouh highlighted.