Friday prayers key to Iran’s succession politics

Friday prayer leaders are set for a central role in the succession to Aya­tollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who turns 78 this year.

Mosque politics. Iranian worshipers perform Friday prayer at Tehran University. (AP)


2017/03/19 Issue: 98 Page: 16


The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth



London - In past centuries, Shia Muslims gave less emphasis than Sunnis to congregating on a Friday but after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolu­tion prayers were encouraged. Friday prayer leaders are set for a central role in the succession to Aya­tollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who turns 78 this year.

Between 2007 and 2016, 52 of the 97 clerics who sat in the Assembly of Experts, the elected body that chooses a new leader, were or had been Friday prayer leaders, states research by Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of politics at Syracuse University in New York.

The percentage is probably higher since the 2016 assembly election, Boroujerdi said in an interview. This strengthens Khamenei’s influence on what comes after him.

“In 1993, as supreme leader, Khamenei reconstituted Showra-ye Siyasatgozari-ye A’emmeh-e Jom’eh, (the Friday Prayer Policymaking Council), keeping only three of the original members, expanding the size from seven to nine and mov­ing it from (the holy city) of Qom to Tehran to be closer to him,” Borou­jerdi explained.

“The [Friday Prayer Policymaking Council] is in charge of the appoint­ment, dismissal and evaluation of all Friday prayer leaders. Khamenei himself appoints the prayer leaders of the capital cities of Iran’s 31 prov­inces.”

The leader also has a representa­tive in each province and if an ally runs for the Experts Assembly, this “encourages local notables to drop out”, Boroujerdi said. “So the per­centage of people representing him in the assembly has been consist­ently going up.”

Boroujerdi said he sees Khame­nei after 28 years as supreme leader as a “micro-manager with an intri­cate knowledge” of Iranian poli­tics. “Khamenei had big shoes to fill replacing Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989,” he said. “He overcame being a junior cleric by becoming an insti­tution builder.”

Lacking Khomeini’s religious pre-eminence, Khamenei utilised personal networks in extending the size, reach and economic clout of the leader’s office.

“He had many positions from the revolution’s early days: as deputy Defence minister and then as war­time president (during the 1980-88 Iraq conflict), he became familiar with the IRGC (Islamic Revolution­ary Guards Corps),” Boroujerdi ob­served.

“He rewards loyalty and many close lieutenants know him from Mashhad [the eastern city where Khamenei grew up] before the revo­lution.”

At 77, Khamenei “is worried about his position in history, about his legacy”, said Boroujerdi. “If my argument is correct and Khamenei is a micro-manager, then he’s not going to leave things to chance.”

Boroujerdi said there is scant pos­sibility a senior ayatollah will be­come the next leader through his religious credentials. The changed composition of the Experts Assem­bly leaves “nobody of stature like Grand Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Golpaygani”, who lost to Khamenei in the 1989 vote.

“If you look at the political heavy­weight ayatollahs in Qom now, you see no one capable of gaining a de­cisive vote. In terms of age, (Ayatol­lah Mohammad-Taqi) Mesbah-Yazdi is 82, (Ayatollah Naser) Makarem Shirazi is 91 and perhaps most im­portantly (Ayatollah Hossein) Vahid Khorasani, who has more disciples than anyone else in Qom, is 96.”

Khamenei wants a successor sharing his mindset, said Borou­jerdi, who puts the probable field at three: Ebrahim Raisi, former judici­ary chief appointed by Khamenei in 2016 to head the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad; Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief Khamenei appointed in 2009; and Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.

“Raisi has emerged lately as a dark horse. It doesn’t hurt that he’s from Mashhad and is son-in-law of Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, a big shot in that part of the country. He’s 56, so age wouldn’t be a factor.

“Sadegh Larijani, also 56, comes from a prominent family. He has judicial experience and the intellec­tual clerical horsepower to make a legitimate case.

“Finally, there’s Hashemi Shah­roudi, who’s 69. In terms of reli­gious credentials, he’s rumoured to have tutored Khamenei on theology and jurisprudence but he’s viewed as more Iraqi than Iranian (he was born in Najaf) and has faced accu­sations of corruption. I’d put him a distant third.”

Boroujerdi said he suspects Khamenei has decided who he will support and is convinced he will in any case reveal his view, through ei­ther a “will and testament” or mes­sages to lieutenants.

Any subsequent vote would be decisive, Boroujerdi concluded: “With no heavyweight left in the Assembly of Experts whom the opposition could point to as a le­gitimate contender, we may end up with a vote between two candidates where it’s clear who’s going to be victorious.”

This would loosely replicate the 2016 election of a chairman for the assembly, which saw a comfortable majority for Ayatollah Ahmad Jan­nati, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer leader. Boroujerdi deduced there is no real chance of President Hassan Rohani becoming leader.

Empirical research underpins his analysis, Boroujerdi stressed. Since leaving for the United States in 1978, he has compiled mountains of data.

Syracuse University Press this year is to publish Boroujerdi’s 800- page Post-Revolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook, including com­prehensive election results, 2,300 biographies, analysis of officials’ backgrounds, lists of parties and groups and an outline of connec­tions within and between ten lead­ing families.

For anyone with more than a passing interest in Iran, the book will be compulsive reading.


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


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