On 8 March, images showing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking in public were broadcast on state television, in an apparent attempt to end speculation in foreign media that he was unwell. Although Khamenei appeared to be in good health, the reports have drawn attention to the uncertainty surrounding Iran’s succession process. Despite the predominance of hardliners in the regime, it remains unclear who will ultimately prevail in this process, which will have significant consequences for the country’s long-term economic and foreign policy.
Iranian state television broadcast undated images on 8 March of 75-year-old Khamenei addressing environmental activists in Tehran, in an apparent attempt to quiet rumours in foreign press that he was in a critical condition in hospital. The claims first emerged in the Israeli press after the supreme leader had been out of the public eye for several days, and come after he spent a week in hospital in September recovering from prostate surgery. Though there is no indication that Khamenei suffers from any imminent or chronic medical challenges, growing domestic and international speculation over his health is indicative of the uncertainty over his successor. The supreme leader holds ultimate authority over all of Iran’s religious, political and military institutions and any change in power will have considerable domestic and international consequences.
Ongoing competition for influence among reformer and hardliner politicians, both of which have their own internal divisions, will further complicate and shape the emergence of Khamenei’s successor. Conservatives have come to dominate the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for selecting the next supreme leader, and their influence will be extended if reformist candidates associated with the post-2009 election anti-government protest movement are again barred from running in a February 2016 vote to select assembly members. The Guardian Council, which is responsible for vetting candidates for the Assembly of Experts, parliament and other bodies, has banned a number of prominent political opposition figures associated with the unrest, which was the worst to affect Iran in decades, from seeking office.
Other groups capable of influencing the selection of a new leader include the incumbent president at the time of Khamenei’s death or incapacity, the clerical establishment, loyalists of the current supreme leader and members of the military and security services, including the Revolutionary Guards, a body that Khamenei has increasingly relied upon to consolidate his own power. The diverse number of actors and opaque nature of the process makes it extremely difficult to predict who will eventually emerge as successor. The transition process has been formalised institutionally but has only been tested once after the death of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Khamenei’s selection itself highlights the potential for unforeseen outcomes, as he was initially considered an unlikely candidate because he lacked experience as a senior cleric.
While a number of figures have been identified as possible candidates in press reports, no clear favourite has yet emerged. Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a conservative but not considered among the radical wing, has been cited as a strong contender given his revolutionary and religious credentials, but his Iraqi ancestry and lack of political charisma are reportedly threats to his ascension. Other conservative candidates include the former judiciary head Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who was appointed as chairman of the Assembly of Experts in March and will hold the position until his term expires in 2016. However at 83 years old, Mesbah-Yazdi’s age and extremist positions including advocacy of violence against reformists, will likely make it difficult to attract widespread support. Current judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani is another possible candidate but despite good ties with the security services and past service under Khamenei, his youth and experience are thought to be obstacles to his candidacy.
Other likely contenders include Sayyed Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei, the supreme leader’s son who currently holds a powerful role in his father’s office, but there is a resistance in some quarters to a dynastic transition. This will also likely affect the candidacy of Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the former supreme leader, whose ties to the 2009 reform movement will also likely be a significant barrier to his selection. Similarly, opposition from hardliners is seen as likely to prevent 80-year-old former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from emerging as a serious contender, despite his decades of service in senior positions. The absence of a clear choice for supreme leader increases the potential for a disputed process, raising the prospect of an intervention by the powerful Revolutionary Guards to end a protracted deadlock and prevent the emergence of a leader who might threaten their interests.
Though it remains unclear who will ultimately be selected as Khamenei’s successor, the influence of hardliners in the Assembly of Experts, military and judiciary make it more difficult for a reformist candidate to take power. Assuming no change in these dynamics, the most likely scenario involves what might be broadly described as policy of continuity or possibly even greater support for more conservative policies, in the event an ultraconservative candidate such as Mesbah-Yazdi is chosen.
The ascension of a more conservative supreme leader could carry significant risks to recent domestic and foreign policy reforms, including new contracts intended to incentivise investment from foreign and especially Western oil companies. Khamenei’s successor might also lack the same level of influence over the Republican Guards, who could seek to undermine pro-business reforms advocated by President Rouhani that threaten their commercial interests in telecommunications, construction, auto manufacturing and other industries.
It is also unclear how the new leader will influence ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, given that the Supreme Leader holds ultimate responsibility for foreign policy and the nuclear issue. Khamenei has remained critical of the West but has nonetheless defended the ongoing nuclear talks from hardliners and provided space for them to continue, even while he has expressed doubts that they will achieve their stated aim. Thus any change in approach by the country’s next supreme leader could create considerable uncertainty regarding Iran’s willingness to negotiate or adhere to any deal resulting from the current nuclear negotiations.