Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009 (Reuters).

December 11, 2020

A quick look at supreme leader succession

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Unconfirmed reports have circulated in recent days, claiming that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s health is declining rapidly and that he is transferring his responsibilities to his son, Mojtaba. There is no evidence to corroborate rumors of Khamenei’s imminent death, although he has given Mojtaba a role in performing some of his duties since at least 2019. Khamenei’s passing is nevertheless likely approaching. It will fundamentally transform the Iranian regime, and the battle for succession has been underway for years. The death of senior Iranian cleric Mohammad Yazdi on December 9 is important in this context. Yazdi’s passing will likely help certain younger clerics decide the next supreme leader.

Yazdi was a prominent far-right cleric who facilitated human-rights abuses and political suppression. He abolished the Office of the Prosecutor while judiciary chief from 1989 to 1999, “effectively rendering all judges prosecutors and leading to the widespread violation of basic human rights,” according to the US Treasury Department. Yazdi was also a member of the Guardian Council, which intervened in the 2020 parliamentary elections to advantage far-right politicians against moderates.

Yazdi’s death is a boon to several younger clerics including Sadegh Amoli Larijani and Interim Tehran Friday Prayer Leader Ahmad Khatami. Larijani is a supreme leader candidate whom Yazdi strongly opposed. The two bitterly disputed in August 2019, challenging one another’s character and credentials. Yazdi was not likely a succession candidate himself, but his death removes one of Larijani’s major adversaries from the scene.

Khamenei *appointed Khatami to replace Yazdi on the Guardian Council in November. Khatami is another staunch hardliner, who is unlikely to generate significant change in council behavior. But his new position indicates growing influence in the clerical establishment and Khamenei’s inner circle.

Larijani and Khatami could leverage Yazdi’s death to increasingly influence the fight over supreme leadership. Neither individual is a likely candidate currently, but the succession struggle is opaque and may change unexpectedly. Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi has become an increasingly likely successor in recent years, but many considered him a weak candidate after losing the 2017 presidential election to Hassan Rouhani. Khamenei may also be positioning his son Mojtaba to replace him.

All these potential successors are hardliners and likely to pursue policies similar to those of Khamenei, if not more aggressive. President Hassan Rouhani seems to be the only serious candidate to hold more moderate views. Yazdi’s death is likely irrelevant to Rouhani’s chances, partly because those chances appear extraordinarily low.