Post-Khamenei Iran: a future of uncertainty

By Reza Khanzadeh

As endless conversations and questions continue to build around Iran, the most important question is rarely discussed, what will the Islamic Republic look like once Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei leaves office? To answer this question there are four issues that will be examined. First, what strategic position and leverage will the Supreme Leadership Office have prior to and during the transition? Who will be the competing actors in deciding the next Supreme Leader? What might the Supreme Leadership look like once the successor takes office? And finally, will Iran’s domestic and foreign policies change and how should the world community approach this?

Little has been said on this subject primarily because the Islamic Republic has been successful in keeping their plans quiet, nevertheless there are ways to analyze this issue and assess its importance so to catapult this discussion in the forefront of US-Iran discourse. Answering these questions does not fully cover the complexity of this topic however it does provide keen insight into this political office and a starting point to further examine this issue in future conversations.

Ever since Khamenei took office in 1989 he has grown the Supreme Leadership Office into a powerful organ within, and parallel to, the Islamic Republic. The clearest sign of Khamenei’s power is seen in his relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC is a branch of Iran’s military), as well as the thousands of individuals he has strategically placed in key positions. By helping the IRGC and his closest companions increase their political, economic, and strategic strength – specifically with its nuclear program, and now positioning the IRGC to maintain dominance over the Islamic Republic – Khamenei has almost insured that the once cleric-dominated government will be more military-centered after he is gone. With the level of power the IRGC has, they can influence the Assembly of Experts (an 80 member political body entrusted with supervising, dismissing, and electing the Supreme Leader) when it is time to elect the next Supreme Leader. This Assembly is very much loyal to Khamenei, thus making their decision alongside the IRGC an easy one.

Before the Assembly can elect the next Supreme Leader a commission will need to investigate the candidates. The members of this commission are also loyal to Khamenei therefore their referral will come with some influence from the two aforementioned bodies. During this process, a three member temporary council is in place until the next Supreme Leader is chosen. Theoretically this temporary council could stay in power indefinitely and if a few members are not Khamenei loyalists the political landscape could change. However, the Expediency Council (a 30 member advisory council to the Supreme Leader and appointed by the leader) has the power to replace individuals in this temporary council thus tailoring it to complement the other political bodies already mentioned. There is, therefore, a strong likelihood that the next Supreme Leader will be an individual from the IRGC camp. However, because the IRGC is fragmented and disorganized without Khamenei the future of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies are left hanging in the balance. Therefore, it remains to be seen who the key actors might be in influencing who becomes the next Supreme Leader.

The main challenger to the IRGC is the clerical establishment. There are two distinctions that will show that the former may not have an easy route in choosing their Supreme Leader. First, the divisions that lie within the clerical establishment are not as convoluted as their counterpart. Second, the clerics (the traditionalist and the reformist parties) are better organized. Therefore, when Khamenei leaves office the IRGC will need to redefine the nature of its association in order to pursue one common objective. During that time the clerics can quickly maneuver themselves to disrupt the IRGC’s plans which may lead to an increase in tension; difficulty in appointing a new Supreme Leader which then may lead to the temporary council holding office indefinitely; a power shift to where the clerics regain the strength and continue on with their agenda; the IRGC using force to retain their upper hand; or any combination of these.

Another key actor in this equation is the Iranian people. If they decide to challenge the ruling elite during this sensitive period there are once again a number of scenarios that could play out similar to those described above. One must not overlook the power that the Iranian citizens have especially within such a window of time. The Islamic Republic has already begun calculating ways it can curb the potential unrest of their people – this in itself demonstrates the Islamic Republic’s acknowledgement that there is a legitimate threat here and that their objective of a smooth transition will prove to be laborious.

At this juncture, it is important to note that the reason for listing the seemingly countless scenarios that could occur is not to focus on the “what if’s” but rather to understand how complex this situation is and how the majority of outcomes will stem from uncertainty, disagreements, controversy, and conflict. With this in mind, the next Supreme Leader will begin his tenure in office with more complications and limitation than anything else.

The Islamic Republic’s future is in some ways held hostage by the uncertainties of the next Supreme Leader(s). Regardless of which political party succeeds in placing their candidate in office, there will be a power struggle. On one side is the party trying to maintain its strength and influence over Iran. On the other side is the Supreme Leader trying to establish his credibility and increase his own strength and influence. Whoever the next Supreme Leader (or Leaders, if the temporary council remains in office for an extended period of time) will be he will have some difficulty in gaining the trust and following of the people, and building a strong coalition to where he can slowly take power away from whichever political party placed him in office. This event occurred for Khamenei and it will more than likely occur for his successor. One major difference now is the increased political dissension and the resentment of the people towards their politicians. Therefore, if the next Supreme Leader is unable to gain enough following, strength, and loyalty not only could he be in jeopardy but the office itself would come into question as whether or not it is still a relevant organ of the government.