September 17, 2022
Iran after Ali Khamenei: Forecasting Trajectories
Western media reported that the health of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declined rapidly, driving speculation that he may soon die. The most likely scenario after his death is that a hardline cleric succeeds him. This successor will likely have the same worldview as Khamenei and may adopt an even more aggressive stance towards the US and its allies. This report presents five different scenarios that could emerge in a post-Khamenei Iran.
Khamenei has ruled Iran for over three decades since becoming supreme leader in 1989 and shaped the modern Iranian state as we know it. He has enabled and supported the regime’s aggressive and authoritarian policies. He has empowered the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) to become a dominant economic, political, security, and socio-cultural force within the country. His passing will be truly epochal in Iran and likely the region.
1. A hardline cleric succeeds Khamenei
A hardline cleric becomes supreme leader through a peaceful and quick transition of power. Hardline frontrunners for succession include President Ebrahim Raisi and Mojtaba Khamenei—the son of Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader, his inner circle, and the IRGC have indicated support for both candidates, but it is unclear which they prefer. They are likely already trying to influence the succession process to install their preferred candidate and may succeed. This scenario is currently the most likely.
Raisi and Mojtaba are both hardline clerics just as radical as Ali Khamenei if not more so. Raisi and Mojtaba are old enough to remember the 1979 Iranian Revolution and either fought in or lost family and friends in the Iran-Iraq War—both crucible experiences that have unified Iranian leaders for decades. Raisi was a prosecutor in the judiciary during the war and played a prominent role in persecuting political dissent and consolidating the regime’s power. Mojtaba fought in the Habib ibn Mazahir Battalion in the war and remains close to those with whom he served. They both came of age and have come to power in the context of constant conflict with the US and an expanding military struggle against Israel. These dynamics make them more likely to pursue similar—if not more aggressive policies—to those of Ali Khamenei. Raisi or Mojtaba would almost certainly remain committed to pursuing the same grand strategic objectives as Khamenei, which include attaining regional hegemony, destroying the Israeli state, and expelling America from the Middle East.
A new hardline supreme leader like Raisi or Mojtaba would still face immediate challenges in asserting his authority and controlling the regime, however. Any successor at the start of his tenure will initially be weaker than Khamenei at the end of his and could struggle to control and mediate between the often-fractious regime power centers. Ali Khamenei was similarly weak when first becoming supreme leader in 1989 and had to consolidate his power in the subsequent decades. He did so in part by building up the IRGC as a major force within the Islamic Republic. He enabled the IRGC to expand its dominance over the economy and involvement in politics. His successor will have to reckon with the IRGC’s force without having Khamenei’s gravitas and history in creating it.
The IRGC has become one of the most powerful actors within the regime under Khamenei and will likely continue influencing regime behavior after Khamenei dies. A weaker supreme leader may struggle to command or constrain an IRGC trying to preserve its dominant role in a post-Khamenei Iran. A new supreme leader who chose to wrestle with the IRGC rather than yielding to its demands might instead disrupt decision-making processes and the development and implementation of Iranian defense and foreign policies, although this course of action is less likely.
Raisi could install a close ally as president to consolidate his power if he became supreme leader. The Iranian constitution dictates that Raisi’s first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, would become president if Raisi resigned to become supreme leader. The constitution leaves the supreme leader the flexibility to appoint a different president if the first vice president dies or cannot otherwise perform his duties. Supreme Leader Raisi could easily exploit this authority to install whichever political ally he wants as president considering the broad latitude Khamenei has reserved to himself and the Guardian Council to decide whether candidates for office or officeholders are able to perform their duties using ideological criteria.
Raisi and Mojtaba would likely be unpopular domestically, further challenging their authority and power. They both have enforced and supported repressive policies for decades. Mojtaba has the added challenge of having to justify a dynastic succession. The 1979 revolution overturned the Pahlavi dynastic monarchy and dynastic succession remains fundamentally incompatible with the regime’s revolutionary ideology. Ali Khamenei has previously *criticized hereditary succession, complicating Mojtaba’s hopes of succeeding his father.
2. Prolonged, intra-regime negotiation
The regime fails to agree on a new supreme leader, triggering a protracted but peaceful intra-regime negotiation for weeks, months, or years. Iran could enter a period of political deadlock if the Assembly of Experts—the body designated with selecting the supreme leader—or other regime power centers cannot agree on a supreme leader. This scenario is the second most likely after scenario one.
The regime could form an interim leadership council to execute the basic responsibilities of the supreme leader in this scenario. The Iranian constitution dictates that the regime will temporarily form such a council consisting of the president, judiciary chief, and a cleric from the Guardian Council if the supreme leader dies or is incapacitated until the regime selects a new one. The Guardian Council is a 12-person body responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates and includes six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six elected by Parliament. Ongoing deadlock over the succession could keep a leadership council in power for months or years.
A leadership council would likely face similar challenges to a hardline supreme leader described above in trying to decisively lead the regime and mediate between its power centers. This council would be inherently weak as councils almost always are and lack the legitimacy of a supreme leader to rule. The council would need to manage the extraordinarily influential IRGC and could struggle to command and constrain its military leadership, potentially giving the IRGC more latitude to pursue foreign adventurism.
3. Infighting and violence
The regime fails to agree on a new supreme leader, triggering infighting and violence. Different actors such as the IRGC or a moderate-reformist bloc could mobilize supporters against one another and trigger protests, driving further instability and violence.
This scenario is similar to the second scenario in that it posits that the regime could not agree on the next supreme leader but includes possibly violent clashes between regime power centers. This scenario is unlikely.
4. A moderate or reformist cleric succeeds Khamenei
A moderate or reformist cleric becomes supreme leader through a peaceful and quick transition of power. Such moderates and reformists include former President Hassan Rouhani and Hassan Khomeini—the grandson of the first supreme leader of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini. This scenario is highly unlikely.
A moderate or reformist cleric such as Rouhani or Khomeini would likely preserve the fundamental structure and orientation of the regime but diverge in some key areas. One of the primary divisions between hardliners and the moderate-reformist crowd is that the latter has historically promoted greater albeit still limited personal liberties and more relaxed censorship than hardliners. Most moderates and many reformists diverge from their hardliner counterparts much less on foreign policy and national security policy. Neither Rouhani nor Khomeini is likely to revise the Islamic Republic’s grand strategic objectives fundamentally.
A moderate or reformist supreme leader would face greater challenges than a hardline supreme leader in trying to cohere and unify the regime. Moderates and reformists like Rouhani have a more adversarial relationship with the IRGC, which could challenge the IRGC’s entrenched influence within the regime. The IRGC waged a brutal if largely clandestine political struggle against Rouhani during Rouhani’s two presidential terms, periodically requiring Khamenei to intervene to stop the attacks. There is no reason to imagine that the IRGC’s dislike of Rouhani and his policies would abate just because Rouhani succeeded Khamenei. The IRGC’s hostility to Rouhani, personally, and to many of the policies that Khomeini has supported is one of the factors, indeed, that makes the prospect of either succeeding Khamenei remote.
5. Regime Change
Widespread protests erupt and collapse the regime. This scenario is distinct from scenario three in that it assumes that the regime elite remain relatively unified but face widespread popular unrest that they cannot control. Popular, anti-regime protests have grown in Iran since late 2017. Protests could reignite during a succession crisis and catalyze the collapse of the regime. This scenario is highly unlikely.
Ali Khamenei’s death or removal as supreme leader is unlikely to meaningfully change the regime’s adversarial relationship with the US and its allies. A new supreme leader might even adopt a more aggressive stance towards the US, particularly if a hardliner succeeds Khamenei, which is the likeliest scenario. Supreme leader succession is unlikely to alter the Islamic Republic’s grand strategic objectives, but it will fundamentally change intra regime dynamics, presenting opportunities for new and existing power centers to usurp and consolidate influence in a post-Khamenei Islamic Republic. These dynamics will be worth observing as a new supreme leader attempts to preserve and expand on Khamenei’s legacy.