Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (Wikimedia Commons).

January 09, 2017

What Rafsanjani's death means for the Supreme Leader's succession

Former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s unexpected death on January 8 marks a significant blow to President Hassan Rouhani and his centrist allies. Rafsanjani was one of Iran’s wealthiest men, a kingmaker for Iran’s centrist politicians, and a prominent member of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical council charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader. The most important consequence of his passing is to weaken the influence of the centrist camp in that selection.

Iran’s reformist-moderate bloc has lost one of its only allies with the authority necessary to shape the succession. Rafsanjani’s revolutionary credentials gave him a wider latitude to challenge hardliners than some of the other figures in the moderate camp. Rafsanjani was a loyal advisor to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and served as Iran’s first president after the Iran-Iraq War. Rafsanjani’s status as a regime insider transformed him into a key power-broker in Iran’s centrist camp after his presidency. He backed reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s successful campaign in 1997, and his support is widely credited with helping Hassan Rouhani win the presidency in 2013.

Rafsanjani also enjoyed deep ties to Iran’s clerical establishment, typically a power center for hardline regime figures. Rafsanjani leveraged his influence with clerical organizations to rally a coalition of moderate and traditional conservative clerics against hardline candidates in the spring 2016 Assembly of Experts elections. Rafsanjani positioned himself as a potential power-broker in the selection of the next Supreme Leader after a limited victory in the elections. Rafsanjani’s newfound influence in the Assembly was particularly worrisome for regime hardliners given his record of raising controversial topics about the succession before the spring elections. Rafsanjani appeared to advocate for replacing the office of the Supreme Leader with a clerical council and for the Assembly to actively supervise the Supreme Leader’s performance.

The loss of Rafsanjani will hurt the ability of the centrist camp to influence the formal process to replace Khamenei. Khamenei’s age and rumored health issues indicate that the Assembly may exercise its constitutional duty to choose a successor soon. The conservative-moderate bloc that Rafsanjani led to victory in the 2016 elections will not be as influential without him. Other networks in the Assembly, like those centering around hardline Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, will now have a freer hand in selecting the next Supreme Leader. Indeed, many signs indicate that one hardline cleric in the Assembly, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, may be the regime’s top pick for Khamenei’s successor. 

Rafsanjani’s unexpected death will transform the Iranian political system. It remains to be seen how Rouhani and his centrist allies will manage the loss of Rafsanjani before the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for May 2017. It is clear, however, that the Supreme Leader and regime hardliners have lost a major obstacle in ensuring that their policies continue in the post-Khamenei era.