For hardliners in Iran, the June 18 presidential election is less about choosing a new executive branch chief than about consolidating power centers before the time comes to choose Iran’s real ruler: the next Supreme Leader.
The backing of such power centers is essential to ensure a speedy and smooth transition after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s death.
In 2016, it was disclosed that the Assembly of Experts, an elected body of clerics charged with supervising and choosing the Supreme Leader, had created a committee to shortlist qualified nominees. Besides the committee members, the only person with access to the names of the nominees is Khamenei.
Iranians elect Assembly of Experts’ members for eight-year terms, and the current one ends in 2024, when Khamenei will be 85. The president elected in June will still be in office when elections will be held concurrently for a new assembly and parliament.
A key objective for Iran’s different political camps in the upcoming presidential election is not merely controlling the executive branch, but also gaining more power to influence the assembly decision. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is likely to be the main power broker after many years in which the balance of power in the system has already tilted in its favor. In June, along with the presidential election, there will also be the by-elections for four vacant seats on the eighty-six-member assembly, which could further tip the balance toward the IRGC and hardline supporters.
The Iranian Constitution specifies that in case of death, resignation, or dismissal of the Supreme Leader, the Assembly of Experts “must choose and introduce to people” a new leader. If the process, which requires a two-thirds majority, takes too long, the Expediency Council—a body created to resolve disputes among government branches—is to choose a council to discharge the duties of the Supreme Leader. This council is to be composed of the president, the judiciary chief, and one of the clerical members of the Guardian Council, a twelve-man body of clerics and lawyers chosen by the Supreme Leader to vet legislation and candidates for elected office.
The Constitution specifies that this council’s mandate is “temporary,” and that the assembly must choose a new Supreme Leader “as soon as possible” without specifying how much time the assembly has for the task. In theory, the three-member council could work indefinitely. However, it cannot call for a referendum or a Constitutional amendment unless three-quarters of the Expediency Council approves.
In other words, the Expediency Council chairman could open the door for amending the Constitution and substituting the council for a new Supreme Leader, limit his authorities, or create term limits for the post. Thus, if the assembly does not choose a new leader in a relatively short time, significant change in the system is theoretically possible.
In 1989, the assembly reached a final decision two days after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani engineered Khamenei’s selection in a deal that amended the Constitution to eliminate the post of prime minister and make the president the chief executive. Rafsanjani then ran to become president the same year.
That power structure has changed since then to suit Khamenei, however. In theory, the assembly is supposed to have the authority to question Khamenei and even impeach and dismiss him. In reality, however, the assembly has been neutered to suit Khamenei and most of its members are Khamenei’s representatives in different offices and provinces. Once Khamenei dies, these people will be on their own and may be easy to manipulate.
This is where the IRGC comes into the picture: It needs to pressure/persuade assembly members to choose a new and favorable leader in a relatively short time. Otherwise, things might get out of control and more players emerge, complicating the selection process.
There has been a steady rise in IRGC influence in the power structure since Khamenei became Supreme Leader. It is Iran’s most organized political-security institution and has benefited from US sanctions to exercise increasing control over the economy as well. Politicians close to it—including many former officers—are seeded throughout important institutions such as the Supreme Leader’s office, the parliament, the judiciary, and many departments of the executive branch and city councils. When Khamenei dies, IRGC-affiliated figures will be able to control the succession process and silence any possible opposition to their favored candidate.
No one knows the names of those shortlisted to succeed Khamenei. However, two individuals are believed to have the inside track: Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba, and Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi.
The 51-year-old Mojtaba has kept a low profile. He teaches at a senior level in a Qom seminary, giving him the clerical rank necessary for the Supreme Leader’s role. He has a mindset similar to his father and good relations with the IRGC and security forces. The problem with choosing him is that such a choice would make the Islamic Republic resemble the hereditary monarchy it toppled in 1979.
Khamenei is sensitive about speculation regarding Mojtaba. Recently, posters went up in Tehran and Qom with photos of Khamenei and his son that seemed to hint at Mojtaba’s succession. Security agencies were quick to take the posters down and silence talk about them in the media, possibly fearing that early publicity resulting from too high a profile at this stage could work against Mojtaba’s chances.
The other likely candidate is Raisi, the hardline judiciary chief who lost the 2017 presidential elections to Hassan Rouhani. Appointed by Khamenei to his current post in 2019, Raisi, 62, has campaigned against corruption. A member of the Assembly of Experts since 2006, he was also directly involved in approving the mass execution of political prisoners in the summer of 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Khamenei came out in support of Raisi when he was criticized for those executions. The European Union and the United States have sanctioned Raisi for human rights violations.
Raisi may decide to run for president again in June if he decides that will help him in his ultimate quest to succeed Khamenei. If Raisi does decide to run, the entire fundamentalist camp will likely coalesce around him to make sure he receives more than the 15 million votes he attracted in 2017.
The author, who is well versed in the Iranian political scene, asked to remain anonymous.
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