Chapter 3 - An extrapolative examination of how the next Supreme Leader may be chosen

In 2014, Iran’s second Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, underwent surgery for prostate cancer. This sparked a flood of rumours on the future of the Islamic Republic and his position should he not recover. Two years later and after the February 2016 elections, the unease persists: who will become Iran’s next Supreme Leader?

The Supreme Leader shapes the direction of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is the country’s leading political figure and possesses wide-ranging powers, including heading Iran’s armed forces. He is the arbiter of disputes among different factions in Iran’s political elite, a responsibility that has become increasingly onerous in the last few years. He is not the only decision‑maker, but the final one. His role is to unify the different centres of power and bring cohesion to the policy outputs. Preserving his legacy and the survival of the Islamic Republic are Khamenei’s main goals.

To date, Iran has only witnessed one succession, which did not proceed according to the clearly defined rules in the constitution. As a result, much like Iranian elections more generally, it is impossible to predict the aftermath of the Supreme Leader’s death or the result of the succession process. But a few scenarios can be sketched out.

The appointment procedure and the Assembly of Experts

Article 5 of the Iranian constitution establishes the position of the Supreme Leader, and article 110 outlines his extensive powers. The incumbent receives support from the Supreme Leader’s Office and advice from the Expediency Council. According to the constitution, the Supreme Leader must be a high-ranking Shia with the greatest possible knowledge of religious law. In theory, he must be acceptable to the people and understand politics and policy. In reality, he must be acceptable to the many power circles in the Iranian political elite.

The Assembly of Experts is the body that chooses the Supreme Leader and can declare him unfit (although in practice it is unlikely to do that today). The Assembly is a council of 88 members, elected every eight years. The Guardian Council is a 12-member body appointed by the Supreme Leader and tasked with monitoring the religious qualifications of the Assembly of Expert members and parliament. This means that even if the candidates met all the religious requirements, it would not be enough: they must also meet the political criteria of regime authorities.

Historically, the outlined appointment procedure was never used. In 1985, Iran’s then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appointed Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as his successor. But Ayatollah Montazeri’s support for a democratic velayat-e-faqihFootnote 7 and his criticisms of the regime led Ayatollah Khomeini to dismiss him.

After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Hojjat-ol Islam Khamenei emerged as a possible successor, despite lacking the charisma, theological qualifications and support of his predecessor. When the Assembly of Experts appointed Khamenei, the Supreme Leader had to serve as a marjaFootnote 8. But he did not meet the criterion and had to be reappointed after the Assembly abolished that requirement.

In today’s Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader will be chosen based on his political connections rather than his religious ties and credentials. Multiple centres of power will have to agree on a candidate. Each faction has its own interpretation of velayat-e-faqih and competing interests. Like everything else in the country, the selection of the next Supreme Leader will likely be the subject of intense intra-regime negotiations. As a result, much of the process will be conducted behind closed doors. The succession also depends on the circumstances: Ayatollah Khamenei’s sudden death would result in a more volatile process, whereas more advance notice would lead to a smoother, better prepared transition.

The Assembly of Experts today

To secure his position, Ayatollah Khamenei weakened the clergy who could question his authority and helped low-ranking clerics gain prominence. He exerted influence over the Assembly of Experts to obtain what he wanted. This weakened the organisation intended to check his power, which begs the question: will the Assembly actually influence the process or merely rubber-stamp a pre-selected candidate?

The February 2016 elections were significant because there is a high probability that today’s Assembly will elect the next Supreme Leader. The polls resulted in a more moderate leaning Assembly, with two-thirds of the important hardliners losing their seats, including Ayatollah Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who was chairman of the Assembly until his defeat.

But almost three months after the elections, the Assembly appointed Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati as its chairman. Ayatollah Jannati, 90, is a regime hardliner who received the fewest votes in Tehran and the leader of the Guardian Council. The election of such a figure as chairman of a more moderate Assembly is likely the result of negotiation to appease hardliners and play a long game. However, this does mean that moderates can no longer veto hardline candidates for the next Supreme Leader should the process occur within the next two years, because the chairman of the Assembly presides over the election process.

Potential candidates

Although it is impossible to determine who will be the next Supreme Leader, there are a number of potential candidates in today’s Assembly. Ayatollah Shahroudi is the Second Deputy Chairman after May’s elections. He was born in Iraq, studied and taught in Najaf and is an influential Shia marja. He was the head of Iran’s judiciary between 1999 and 2009, and was close to Khomeini. In 2011, he was reportedly appointed by the latter to mediate between the parliament and President Ahmadinejad during a period of intense infighting. He is a conservative but not a radical, has legitimate religious credentials and is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Ayatollah Shahroudi maintains close ties to IraqFootnote 9, which is why Iran was reportedly grooming him to become the next leader of the Shia in that countryFootnote 10. In addition, he may not be charismatic and popular enough in Iran.

Ayatollah Ali Rafsanjani, 81, previous chairman of the Assembly, President of Iran and regime insider is another possible candidate for Supreme Leader. But today, he is associated with the reformist camp and disliked by hardliners. He is also known for being corrupt. He won the popular vote for the Assembly, making him the logical candidate for its chairman, but this made him even less popular with hardliners. 

Ayatollah Sadeq Ardeshir Larijani, who heads the judiciary, is another potential candidate. He possesses good religious credentials, but remains less experienced than Shahroudi or Rafsanjani. He is, however, very well connected. The Larijani family is at the head of the Iranian state, including his brothers Ali, who was just re-elected as Speaker of Parliament, and served in the IRGC, and Mohammad Javad who is Khamenei’s advisor and well connected to the IRGC. Ayatollah Larijani is a radical conservative and a strict follower of Khamenei’s position.

Today, it would seem that Ayatollah Shahroudi is the most likely contender.

Khamenei’s son, Seyed Mojtaba Khamenei is also in the running. While there are rumours he was being groomed for the position, Mojtaba Khamenei’s is very young at 45, with an incomplete religious education. He is linked to the IRGC, heavily involved in many of their economic deals and has had easy access to his father’s office, which translates into influence. That being said, appointing him would make it look like a hereditary process and role, which the Islamic Republic wants to avoid.

It is not possible to dismiss the idea that President Rouhani himself could also become the Supreme Leader. He has had a relatively good relationship with the current incumbent, which is part of the reason he was able to close to the nuclear deal, and he won the third most votes in the February 2016 elections. However, President Rouhani’s more outspoken stance since the nuclear deal has not won him any favours. The IRGC would likely contest his candidacy, if put forward, because of Rouhani’s attempts to minimise the role of the IRGC in the economy in particular.

While these are the candidates that emerge as likely today, the rapid changes within the Islamic Republic make it possible that new individuals will emerge as contenders in the future. Today, it would seem that Ayatollah Shahroudi is the most likely contender.

Today’s spoilers

A number of likely scenarios therefore emergeFootnote 11. The next Supreme Leader will likely turn out to be a centrist or similar to Ayatollah Khamenei, perhaps even handpicked by him, fostering the existing political order. A more moderate Supreme Leader, who is more accountable to state institutions and the electorate than Khamenei could also emerge. The Islamic Republic could see the formation of a leadership council that would replace a single leader. While the eventual outcome is unlikely to be as clear cut as these scenarios, they provide a lens through which to estimate what is more or less possible. In addition, there are a number of new factors to consider in the next succession process, including the following.


Ayatollah Khamenei empowered the IRGC to compensate for his own lack of charisma and clerical credentials. In addition, the Iran-Iraq War, decades of sanctions and regional turmoil transformed the IRGC into a political, economic and military powerhouse, with wide-ranging powers and a presence in all sectors of life in Iran. They are loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, but many are frustrated with the nuclear accord (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA) and feel their interests were side-lined.

...the IRGC is by no means a monolithic entity. While some are extreme hardliners, others believe in the benefits of the nuclear deal and a more open Iran.

The IRGC will want to influence the succession process and ensure the next leader is as loyal to them as they are to him. They will want the next Supreme Leader to safeguard their interests, especially in a post-nuclear deal context. But the IRGC is by no means a monolithic entity. While some are extreme hardliners, others believe in the benefits of the nuclear deal and a more open Iran.

The Islamic Republic’s legitimacy

The last succession occurred at the end of the 1980s, when the Islamic Republic was imbued with ideological zeal following eight years of resistance in the Iran-Iraq War and headed by a popular and charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, the Islamic Republic is tired. The clergy is weakened and divided, while the IRGC is strong. In the past two decades, Ayatollah Khamenei secured his position by building a number of overlapping institutions which he could more easily control. Deep regime intervention in the affairs of the Assembly of Experts inevitably weakened the system as a whole. In addition, this will be the first succession not determined by the father of the Iranian revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini’s choice could not be questioned, but Ayatollah Khamenei does not have the same popularity and legitimacy as his predecessor. Instead, he witnessed shifts in his legitimacy following his reaction to key events in Iran’s recent history: down after the 2009 crackdown on protestors, but up after President Rouhani’s surprise election and the nuclear deal.

Council vs. Supreme Leader

Given the lack of agreement on any issue among different power centres in Iran, the possibility of no immediate succession is real. Article 111 of the Iranian constitution establishes a temporary leadership council if the Supreme Leader cannot fulfil his duties or suddenly dies, with the approval of the Guardian and Expediency Councils. The latter is composed of the serving president, the head of the judiciary, and a jurist from the Guardian Council. This was what Rafsanjani wanted to put in place after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, but the elite would not agree to it. While it is unlikely that today’s Assembly of Experts would deem Ayatollah Khamenei unfit to exercise his duties, should his death be sudden, it may have to take over. But how long would it do so? Would it ultimately be willing to give up the responsibility? And what would happen if the religious authorities in Qom no longer stood by the current Supreme Leader position?

Factionalism and divisions

Factionalism characterises the Islamic Republic. If this adds to its dynamic and changing nature, it can also paralyse it. Factionalism has always been a part of Iranian political life, but it has rarely been as pronounced as today. Divisions also exist within factions, including the seemingly unified hardliners. The ultimate goal of all is the survival and continuity of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Various factions have different ways of achieving this. It is conceivable that they could put their individual interests aside and push for a centrist candidate, accepted across the board. Usually, the system seeks compromise at the last minute in order to avoid factional warfare. But today’s Islamic Republic is different: it is no longer afraid of such disagreements.


The personality of the next Supreme Leader will determine the direction the country takes. Ayatollah Khamenei and his followers want a leader who will continue his legacy and defend their interests. But the Supreme Leader has traditionally been a balancer between the different factions in Iran. Given the rise in moderation, such a figure should be more of a centrist. The rapid pace of change in Iran makes the factors that would push the decision in one direction today likely different from when the time comes to make a decision after Ayatollah Khamenei’s death. Along with the opaque nature of the succession process, this makes determining the aftermath of his departure a guessing game. But “what matters more than the identity or personality of the next Supreme Leader is that he will enter office at the choosing of powerful forces, so he will likely owe the IRGC, the intelligence services, and the judiciary more than they owe him. In other words, Khamenei’s institutional children will be the next leader’s institutional elder brothers, protecting him and perhaps controlling him as wellFootnote 12”.

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