Neigh­bor A Fu­ture Un­cer­tain

Will Ay­a­tol­lah Khamenei leave a power vac­uum in Iran or are other plans al­ready in place?

Southasia - - Contents - By Reza Khan­zadeh

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.

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