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What Will Happen Following Khamenei’s Death?

What Will Happen Following Khamenei’s Death?

Sunday, 29 May, 2022 - 17:15

Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is now 83 years old and one could see the signs of old age in his face and movements. There are recurrent news and rumors about his chronic conditions and bad health but this has never been based on any evidence nor has it been commented upon by his office or those close to him.


But, soon or late, Khamenei’s death will come and one has to see how ready Iran is for such an eventuality. In his more than three decades of rule, the leader of the Islamic Republic has given shape to a unique network of relations and centers of power and wealth that are in almost total obedience to him. This network works under the command of Khamenei, is present in politics and has placed its political actors in various sectors. Kleptocratic economic-political ties of the regime mostly work around the same centralized command.


Despite all international and economic crises, Khamenei has been able to suppress all dissenting voices and rival centers of power and create a united and obedient regime of power. But what will happen after his departure?


The post-Khamenei era can be assessed from a variety of angles. Will the Islamic Republic fall? If it continues, will it do so as before? Which person or group will come by? What will happen to the first circle of those close to Khamenei?


If we assume that the Islamic Republic will outlive Khamenei, the most important challenge will be the crisis of succession.


A leader out of the Assembly of Experts?


Iran’s political atmosphere today is entirely different from when Khomeini passed away. In 1989, the Islamic Republic had not been consolidated yet. Opposing groups inside the government balanced each other out and bodies such as the Assembly of Experts weren’t as unified as today.


The composition of the Assembly of Experts was such that, before the end of the session for electing the new leader, it wasn’t clear whether there would be a single leader or a council of leadership.


Following Khomeini’s death, his son, Ahmad, in union with Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were able to give the leadership to their desired candidate. In the post-Khomeini era, each had a more or less definite role in power. It took many years for Khamenei to build a base of power separate from his two former comrades and eliminate the two figures who had brought him to leadership from the scene of power.


The composition of the 1989 Assembly of Experts, which included forces with unclear tendencies and could have lead to a variety of outcomes, has been totally transformed under Khamenei. Using his military and security levers, Khamenei has engineered the elections to this body and that of other supposedly elected bodies so that he gets to largely determine their composition.


The last elections for the Assembly of Experts were held in 2016. It has 88 members and all candidates must be first vetted and approved by both the Ministry of Intelligence and the Intelligence Department of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). They should also pass the Guardian Council’s test for their level of knowledge and their tendencies. Ultimately, for anyone to get anywhere close to the assembly, they should first be approved by clerics appointed by Khamenei in the Guardian Council.


This process also existed during Khomeini’s time but the red lines of the first leader were different from those of his successor. Khomeini tried to not enter into the factional bickering of politicians inside the regime. But Khamenei sees his identity and existence rooted in a reading of Islamic governance that is reflected in what was once called the right-wing faction and is now known as the conservative or Osoolgera faction. This is why he has kept the playing field open only to the figures of this political faction.


As such, the current 88 members of the Assembly of Experts are not true players of power in the post-Khamenei era. They are but a rubber-stamp body in thrall to the main centers of power which are outside this group and will probably do whatever they want.


IRGC, commanders without a leader


When Khomeini died, the IRGC was in a fragile shape. The IRGC commanders had had a role in the massive defeats of the last two years of the war with Iraq and losing of the strategic Faw peninsula. Many reports showed how they had prioritized political interests instead of focusing on the war and this had angered Khomeini.


A few days after he accepted the United Nations Security Resolution 598, Khomeini wrote a letter to Ali Razini, then head of the Judicial Department of the Armed Forces and ordered him to, without keeping to excessive regulations, form a special court for violations in the war zones and execute all those “who caused the defeat of the Islamic war or lead to casualties.” The Supreme Leader’s orders explicitly singled out execution as a punishment for violating commanders of the IRGC.


As it happens, the list of those to be tried by this new special court, and possibly get an execution sentence, included Ahmad Vahidi who is currently the interior minister in the government of Ebrahim Raisi and who was the military governor of Kermanshah during the Mersad Operation; and Yahya Rahim Safavi, IRGC’s top commander following Mohsen Rezayi; and many other well-known figures who have been elevated during Khamenei’s reign including Esmayil Kowsari.


On June 2, 1988, Khomeini gave another order to Rafsanjani to finish off the IRGC and merge it into the army. When appointing Rafsanjani as deputy commander in chief, Khomeini’s order specifically pointed out to a plan for merging of all armed forces to increase cohesion.


The order tasked Rafsanjani to act on behalf of the Supreme Leader and form a general staff which would centralize propaganda, military and logistic affairs and “eliminate or merge repetitive and unnecessary organizations and departments.” The order also brought up the need for court-martialing of military commanders on all levels. Rafsanjani had been ordered to use “wartime military court rules” to punish the violators “appropriately and decisively.”


Khomeini died two months after issuing this order and, as leader, Khamenei would go a different way. When Khomeini died, the IRGC had been an organization whose commanders were about to be tried and maybe even executed. As an organization, it was in its twilight days, on its way to be amalgamated into the army.


But Khamenei and the IRGC formed a special bond from the outset. Just a few days after he started his reign as leader, Khamenei ordered a stop to the implementation of Khomeini’s order for amalgamation of armed forces. Same with the order for court-martial of IRGC commanders.


Yahya Rahim Safavi, who had been under the risk of execution in 1989, and who is currently a high military advisor to Khamenei, says: “Just a few days after his His Excellency Imam Khomeini passed away and His Excellency zKhamenei started his leadership, the latter ordered for the meetings held for the amalgamation of IRGC and the army to stop. He said he didn’t believe in such amalgamation and saw the army and the IRGC as two armed wings of the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic and that they should remain as such and work together as defined by the constitution.”


Unlike 1989, the IRGC of 2022 is now in charge of almost everything in Iran.


The IRGC’s economic and construction bodies get all the top economic projects, from importing fertilizers to selling oil, from building dams and monuments to smuggling currency, commodities and fuel.


Iran’s communication system is controlled by the IRGC whether via the Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran (MCI) or the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI.)


The IRGC has its own shipyards, airports and border stations. Sixty percent of all provincial governors are from the IRGC and most of the rest are IRGC proxies.


The parliament is controlled by IRGC commanders and the Speaker of the parliament is a senior IRGC commander. The administration of Ebrahim Raisi runs all key ministries with commanders in suits.


The media sphere of the Islamic Republic is almost entirely a fiefdom of the IRGC. Two major news agencies, several news websites, two newspapers, many large publications, the Owj Cinema Organization and Seraj Cyberspace Organization rule over the Iranian media. They are controlled and ran by IRGC’s Cultural Department. The national broadcaster has also been gradually coming under the control of forces close to the IRGC in the last decade.


In addition to all of this, the IRGC has the Quds Force which it has used to run Iran’s foreign policy and its Intelligence Department which it has used to control politics and politicians inside the country.


In his last days of life, Khomeini shook the IRGC by ordering its amalgamation into the army and execution of its top commanders. But Khamenei has instead given the reigns of all affairs to his IRGC acolytes so as to create for himself a parallel government, separate from the official government, as well as parallel intelligence, media and economic organizations. The parallel government is now much more powerful and dominant than the official one.


This monstrous organization, which now dominates over all affairs of the country, is still controlled by Khamenei. When the day of his death comes, the monster might seek to cast itself free. This is why one possible post-Khamenei option might be that the IRGC changes its place: from a monster controlled by the Islamic Republic, it will now become the organization that picks the next leader; a man who will be a mere symbol while the true power will lie with the IRGC.


Mojtaba, a player who keeps himself ready


It’s unlikely for Khamenei not to have thought about the scope of instability following his death and the legacy he leaves.


From the “the best leader” theory to the “hereditary leadership” is a short path; one which is seemingly being considered by the Islamic Republic. The center of this conceptual shift is Mojtaba Khamenei, a son of Khamenei.


The Islamic Republic has already did one such conceptual change, in order to pave the way for Ali Khamenei to become leader. The conditions of becoming the Supreme Leader, or the Jurisprudent Guardian, were dialed down from “the best Mujtahid” so that a non-Mujtahid could also become the leader.


Mojtaba Khamenei is the son and pupil of a man who has always likened politics and power to mountain climbing: something that must be done consistently and slowly, with the obstacles being removed one by one and with patience.


For Mojtaba to reach the top job, there are a few existing obstacles. He lacks management experience. To overcome this, stories are being leaked out about his role in running some of the departments controlled by his father, so that he appears as a “shadow manager.”


The second obstacle is that his succession would lead to a a hot debate about the regime of Guardianship of the Jurist turning into a hereditary monarchy. This was also an issue when picking the second leader of the Islamic Republic. Ultimately, Seyed Ahmad Khomeini, who played the same role for his father that Mojtaba Khamenei plays for his father, decided to remain behind the curtain and let Khamenei take center-stage. They perhaps had a deal so that Khamenei would not hold all the power and would share it with Ahmad Khomeini and Rafsanjani.


Before Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency, the Islamic Republic seemed to have one option for a “shadow supreme leader” and that was Raisi himself. Raisi is someone who can be placed on the stage while someone else runs the show. This is how he has been as president. His nine months as president has showed him as a weak and incapable figure who is unlikely to still provide a good candidate for the show of succession.


But Mojtaba Khamenei can still, like Ahmad Khomeini, go for the “shadow leader” option. It is likely that one of Khamenei’s concerns is now to find a non-threatening and weak figure for the show of succession. Someone who could listen to Mojtaba Khamenei and, unlike what Khamenei himself end up doing, would not rise up against him.


From his father, Mojtaba has learnt that the absolute power of the Supreme Leader does not quite work with "sharing." The man who sits on the chair of power can easily eliminate his partners after he consolidated his own positions; this is just what his father did to his erstwhile partners.


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