Khamenei’s hidden hand in Iran’s presidential vote
Iran’s election in June will determine not only the next president, but possibly also who will succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei, who came to power in 1989, is the second-longest serving ruler in Iran in the past century, behind only Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was in power from 1941 until the revolution of 1979. He is the longest-serving head of government in the Middle East. Given that he is 81 years old and suffers from several health problems, it is realistic to argue that he is considering who his successor will be. Grooming a political or religious figure to become the next supreme leader will ensure a smooth transition of power when Khamenei dies.
The position of supreme leader is critical for the survival of the Islamic Republic and the continuation of the revolutionary concept of Ayatollah Khomeini — Velayat-e Faqih, or “guardianship of the Islamic jurist.” Whoever holds the position has the final say on Iran’s domestic and foreign policy and has significant control over the legislative, executive and judicial systems.
In addition, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and intelligence service — the most powerful political and economic apparatuses in the country — report only to the supreme leader, who also has the authority to hand-pick military commanders as the chief of Iran’s military institutions. The supreme leader controls the bonyad charitable trusts (which control a significant part of Iran’s gross domestic product) and the Setad organization (the headquarters for executing the orders of the imam, which is worth more than $90 billion). The supreme leader dictates how the nation’s resources are spent, with a focus on exporting Iran’s revolutionary ideals and support for proxies and militia groups across the Middle East.
Although Khamenei, high-level clerics from the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, and the senior cadre of the IRGC are probably already secretly discussing who will be the next supreme leader, discussing it publicly is considered taboo.
Tradition reveals that the position of president can be a crucial stepping stone when it comes to succeeding the supreme leader.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
The position of president can be a crucial stepping stone to succeeding the supreme leader. When Khomeini died in 1989, Khamenei was Iran’s sitting president. Even though the constitution states that the supreme leader should be elected by the Assembly of Experts, the former incumbent most probably selects his successor. For example, according to the late former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khomeini chose Khamenei to be his successor. The regime even changed the constitution so that Khamenei qualified and Khomeini’s wish could be fulfilled.
This partially explains why Khamenei has increased his interventions in the presidential election. He has even told the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Hassan Khomeini, not to run. The reformist political camp in Iran was reportedly intending to introduce Hassan Khomeini as its candidate. But Yasser Khomeini, brother of Hassan, declared: “The revolution’s supreme leader considered that Hassan Khomeini’s candidacy in the election was not appropriate. He expressed that he counts Hassan as his son, asking him not to enter this field in such circumstances.”
The Guardian Council, which has the ultimate power over who runs for the presidency, has also significantly narrowed its terms for qualification. It has barred anyone older than 75 and younger than 40 from running. Even President Hassan Rouhani criticized the Guardian Council for introducing such restrictive rules, and said it had no legal right to do so. The new age restrictions prevent potential candidates such as 39-year-old Mohammed-Javad Azari Jahromi, the minister of information and communications technology, and 80-year-old Mohammed Gharazi, the former minister of petroleum, from standing in the election.
To fulfill Khamenei’s demands, the Guardian Council will also probably disqualify figures such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was president from 2005 to 2013, or anyone else the supreme leader disapproves of. The council also imposed new rules barring anyone with a criminal conviction or a lack of managerial experience from running in the election. As a result, people such as the reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was jailed in 2009, cannot be a presidential candidate.
It is worth noting that, when Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he might run for president, the Guardian Council would have had difficulty disqualifying him because of his current position. However, the leaking of a controversial audio tape of Zarif resolved that issue as Khamenei publicly criticized him. Zarif subsequently announced that he would not be running.
It is because the position of president can be seen as a stepping stone to succeeding the supreme leader that Khamenei and his inner circle are escalating their interventions in the election.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh