Neighbor A Future Uncertain
Will Ayatollah Khamenei leave a power vacuum in Iran or are other plans already in place?
As endless conversations and questions continue to revolve around Iran, the most important question is rarely discussed. What will the Islamic Republic look like once Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei leaves office? First, what strategic position and leverage will the Supreme Leadership office have prior to and during the transition? Who will be the competing actors in deciding the next Supreme Leader? What might the Supreme Leadership look like once the successor takes office? And finally, will Iran’s domestic and foreign policies change and how should the global community approach this?
Little has been said on this subject primarily because the Islamic Repub- lic has been successful in keeping its plans quiet. Ever since Khamenei took office in 1989, he has established the Supreme Leadership office as a powerful organ within, and parallel to, the Islamic Republic. The clearest sign of Khamenei’s power is seen in his relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC is a branch of Iran’s mili-
tary), as well as the thousands of individuals he has strategically placed in key positions. By helping the IRGC and his closest companions increase their political, economic and strategic strength – specifically with reference to the nuclear program - and now positioning the IRGC to maintain dominance over the Islamic Republic, Khamenei has almost insured that the once cleric-dominated government will be more military-centered after he is gone. With the level of power the IRGC commands, they can influence the Assembly of Experts (an 80member political body entrusted with supervising, dismissing and electing the Supreme Leader) when it is time to elect the next Supreme Leader. This Assembly is very much loyal to Khamenei. As a result, the chances of their decision mirroring that of the IRGC’s is almost predictable.
Before the Assembly can elect the next Supreme Leader, a commission will need to investigate the candidates. The members of this commission are also loyal to Khamenei therefore their referral will come with some influence from the two aforementioned bodies. During this process, a three-member temporary council will be in place until the next Supreme Leader is chosen. Theoretically, this temporary council could stay in power indefinitely and if a few members are not Khamenei loyalists, the political landscape could change. However, the Expediency Council (a 30-member advisory council to the Supreme Leader and appointed by the leader) has the power to replace individuals in this temporary council, thus tailoring it to complement the other political bodies already mentioned. There is, therefore, a strong likelihood that the next Supreme Leader will be an individual from the IRGC camp. However, because the IRGC is fragmented and disorganized without Khamenei, the future of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies are left hanging in the balance. It remains to be seen who the key actors might be in influencing the nomination of the next Supreme Leader.
The main challenge to the IRGC is the clerical establishment. There are two distinctions that will show that the former may not have an easy route in choosing their Supreme Leader. First, the divisions that lie within the clerical establishment are not as convoluted as their counterpart. Second, the clerics (the traditionalist and reformist parties) are better organized. Therefore, when Khamenei leaves office the IRGC will need to redefine the nature of its association in order to pursue one common objective. During that time, the clerics can quickly maneuver themselves to disrupt the IRGC’s plans which may lead to an increase in tension; difficulty in appointing a new Supreme Leader which then may lead to the temporary council holding office indefinitely; a power shift to where the clerics regain the strength and continue with their agenda; the IRGC using force to retain their upper hand; or any combination of these.
Another key actor in this equation is the Iranian people. If they decide to challenge the ruling elite during this sensitive period, there would be once again a number of scenarios that could play out in the same as the ones described above. One must not overlook the power that the Iranian people have, especially inside such a window of time. The Islamic Republic has already begun calculating ways it can curb the potential unrest of their people – this in itself demonstrates the Islamic Republic’s acknowledgement that there is a legitimate threat and that the objective of a smooth transition will prove to be laborious.
At this juncture, it is important to note that the reason for listing the seemingly countless scenarios that could occur is not to focus on the “what ifs” but rather to understand how complex this situation is and how the majority of outcomes will stem from uncertainty, disagreements, controversy and conflict. Keeping this in mind, the next Supreme Leader will begin his tenure in office with more complications and limitations than anything else.
The Islamic Republic’s future is in some ways held hostage by the uncertainties of who the next Supreme Leader will be. Regardless of which political party succeeds in placing their candidate in office, there will be a power struggle. On the one side is the party trying to maintain its strength and influence over Iran. On the other is the Supreme Leader trying to establish his credibility and increase his own strength and influence. Whoever the next Supreme Leader is, he will have some difficulty in gaining the trust and following of the people; he will have a difficult time in building a strong coalition so he can slowly take power away from whichever political party placed him in office. This happened with Khamenei and could also happen with his successor.
One major difference now is the increased political dissension and the resentment of the people towards the politicians. Therefore, if the next Supreme Leader is unable to gain enough strength and loyalty, he could be in jeopardy and the office itself would come into question as still being a relevant organ of the government.
There are a multitude of other scenarios that could legitimately play out, but the point is that the next Supreme Leader of Iran will have to be either subordinate to his respective party or completely change the makeup of the government in order to ensure his longevity in office, or even crumble under the pressures around him. In any case, foreign governments, such as the United States, already need to invest in building relationships with those individuals who are considered front-runners for the Supreme Leadership.