In Iran, the battle to succeed Khamenei heats up

Some analysts in Tehran see Amiri execution, as well as ar­rests of dual-nationals, as part of factional battle.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R), Iranian President Hassan Rohani (C) and former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (L) attend a meeting with ambassadors of Islamic countries, in Tehran, last July.

2016/09/04 Issue: 71 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth

London - When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomei­ni, founder and leader of the Islam­ic Republic, died in 1989 the danger of political crisis meant his passing was not report­ed for several hours and within a day his successor — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — was announced.

The post of rahbar (leader) is easily the most powerful in Iran. Because Khamenei, 77, had pros­tate surgery in 2014, there has been discreet speculation as to who might follow in his shoes.

The possibility that the As­sembly of Experts (Majles-e Kho­bregan-Rahbari) might be called on to make this choice in its new eight-year term encouraged a 62% turnout by Iranian voters in Febru­ary to elect its 89 members. But the assembly’s inner workings remain impervious to outside eyes.

“It’s near to impossible to be confident about any names [for the next supreme leader] at this stage, although there are many in the speculative mix,” said Farideh Farhi, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Among them, an argu­ment can be made that even Presi­dent [Hassan] Rohani is among those auditioning.”

Rohani, a robust 67, lacks pre-eminence as an Islamic scholar. The requirement that the leader be a marja, the most senior Shia Muslim cleric, was removed from the constitution in 1989, appar­ently to allow Khamenei, then just 49 and holding a similar rank (ho­jatoleslam) to Rohani today, to suc­ceed as Khomeini’s chosen heir. The Experts Assembly might pre­fer someone with the higher cleri­cal rank of ayatollah.

The notion of the leader com­bined from the start pre-eminence as an Islamic jurist with political leadership, a challenging concep­tion based on Khomeini’s dynamic personality and intelligence.

The leader’s office has widened its sway under Khamenei, with representatives throughout the bureaucracy, military and prov­inces. Running it is no mean task.

While Khamenei has generally sympathised with Iran’s conserva­tives, his support has also been crucial to the government accept­ing limitations on its nuclear pro­gramme under last year’s agree­ment with world powers.

Khamenei has acted as an arbi­ter between factions, intervening in 2005 to allow two reformists to run for president after they were barred by the watchdog Guardian Council and later curbing the “ex­cesses” of president Mahmoud Ah­madinejad in his second term.

Farhi portrays Khamenei as an “institution builder” who has transformed the leadership from a post resting on Khomeini’s charis­ma. “Ayatollah Khamenei’s legacy, like almost all other Middle East­ern leaders, will be shaped more by the way he parts than by what he has done as leader,” she said.

This includes some role in the succession. Hence Khamenei’s appointment in March of Ebra­him Raeesi, previously national prosecutor-general, as chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, the foundation managing the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, was seen by some as Khamenei elevating a possible suc­cessor.

Until 2015, the front runner had been seen as Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, 67, who had been acting chairman of the Ex­perts Assembly for nine months and had earlier been assigned tasks by Khamenei — including mediating between president and parliament — that were the leader’s responsibility.

But revelations that Shahroudi was under judicial investigation over financial irregularities linked to Iraq, where he has extensive networks, led to his sudden with­drawal in 2015 from the election of a new Assembly chairman, which was won by 84-year-old Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, himself suc­ceeded in May by 89-year-old Aya­tollah Ahmad Jannati.

This does not rule out Shahroudi from the succession but suggests his broad appeal among clerics, the military and politicians gives him enemies. And the role of the judi­ciary in his demise has fed specula­tion that judicial chief Sadeg Lari­jani seeks a kingmaker role in the leadership succession or even to be himself a candidate.

At 55, Larijani has time on his side. The recent judiciary decision to execute the nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri as an alleged spy showed how decisive he can be, al­though many in the political class say Larijani is divisive.

Some analysts in Tehran see the Amiri execution, as well as the ar­rests of dual-nationals, as part of the factional battle centred both on next May’s presidential election and, more obscurely, the leader­ship succession.

A fourth possible candidate for the leadership, none other than Rohani, may well have accepted the torch of pragmatic conserva­tism from his long-term ally, for­mer president Akbar Hashemi Raf­sanjani, who at 82 seems too old, and probably too controversial, to become leader.

Saeid Golkar, senior fellow at Chicago Council of Global Affairs and lecturer at Northwestern Uni­versity, points out that Rohani has recently assigned more projects to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“While his main support is among the technocrats and bu­reaucrats, he is trying to silence hard-line criticism,” Golkar said.

Rohani certainly has an eye on next May’s presidential election but the leadership succession casts such a shadow that it is seen al­most everywhere.

Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.

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