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Iranian president’s death could trigger ‘power competition’ for next supreme leader

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, on May 8, 2022. (SalamPix/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi has thrown a wrench in the succession plans of Iran’s elderly supreme leader.

The ultraconservative Raisi was a longtime protege of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was widely believed to be grooming the former judiciary chief as his successor.

Raisi’s demise has boosted the prospects of other contenders, including Khamenei’s own son, landing the most coveted job in the Islamic republic.

With no obvious front-runner to be the next supreme leader, Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash on May 19 is likely to trigger a power struggle among members of the country’s clerical establishment, experts say.

“If Khamenei can’t control this power competition, then he might have to face a basic reality of the succession issue becoming a destabilizing factor for the regime while he is, in fact, still alive,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Who Are The Likely Contenders?

The 88-seat Assembly of Experts, whose members are elected for eight-year terms, is tasked with appointing the next supreme leader.

Dominated by hard-liners, the clerical body has been secretive about potential successors to the 85-year-old Khamenei, who became the supreme leader in 1989 after the death of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

A three-man panel in the assembly keeps a list of possible successors that has reportedly not even been seen by other members.

Some experts say Raisi’s death has boosted the chances of Mojtaba Khamenei, a cleric and the supreme leader’s second son.

The 55-year-old has shunned the limelight but is believed to have considerable influence behind the scenes and close ties with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which plays a prominent military, political, and economic role in Iran.

But the younger Khamenei is seen as lacking the leadership skills and religious credentials for the post. He is widely referred to as a hojatoleslam, a title that refers to mid-ranking clerics, although a news agency affiliated with seminaries has since 2022 called him an ayatollah, an honorific title reserved for high-ranking clerics.

In February, a member of the Assembly of Experts said the supreme leader was opposed to hereditary rule, which would appear to rule out the younger Khamenei.

“The optics of having a son succeed his father perhaps resembles the optics of a monarchy,” said Farzan Sabet, a senior research associate at the Geneva Graduate School.

The Islamic Revolution in 1979 saw clerics loyal to Khomeini overthrow the U.S.-backed shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Sabet said the younger Khamenei is still likely to “play an important role in a future iteration of the Islamic republic.”

Another cleric who is believed to be in contention for the role of supreme leader is Ayatollah Alireza A’rafi. The 67-year-old is close to Khamenei and serves as one of two deputy chiefs of the Assembly of Experts.

In 2020, Khamenei appointed A’rafi as the head of all of Iran’s seminaries, suggesting that he meets the religious criteria to become the next supreme leader.

A’rafi is not a household name and lacks name recognition, but that does not necessarily hurt his chances.

“Something we have to note about high-level leadership positions in the Islamic republic…is that a candidate may often emerge from, let’s say, relative obscurity,” Sabet said.

IRGC Playing Kingmaker

Analysts say the IRGC is likely to play a key role in picking Khamenei’s successor in an effort to protect its interests.

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said Raisi was the ideal candidate for the IRGC because he was a “malleable yes-man devoid of independent ideas.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards must now try to identify an individual as artless as the late President Raisi,” Alfoneh said.

In the early 1980s, Khomeini appointed Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as his deputy. But they fell out and the latter was cast side and his position abolished.

In 2018, amid rumors of Khamenei’s poor health, there was talk of reestablishing the position of deputy supreme leader but it led nowhere.

“This unwillingness to share the stage with anyone else — in fear of losing his authority — has kept everyone guessing about who might succeed Khamenei,” Vatanka said.

“Khamenei’s ambiguity around the succession issue is more likely now to be a liability for him than an asset.”