The Iran File is a weekly intelligence summary that synthesizes events from the past week and forecasts what to expect in the future.
Raisi’s Future Looks Bright for Supreme Leadership
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]
Forecast: Hojjat ol Eslam Ebrahim Raisi is becoming a top contender to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei appointed Raisi as Judiciary Chief. Less than one week later the powerful quasi-legislative body tasked with electing Iran’s next Supreme Leader elected Raisi as its First Vice Chairman. Raisi’s sudden meteoric rise in the Islamic Republic’s political ranks is not by itself a guarantee that he will be Iran’s next Supreme Leader, however. Raisi must still compete against other contenders, including recently-elected Expediency Discernment Council (EDC) Chairman Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, in order to secure the supreme leadership.
Khamenei is grooming Raisi for supreme leadership and hand-picked Raisi to lead the Judiciary. Khamenei has shown a fondness toward Raisi despite his embarrassing loss to President Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential elections. Khamenei *selected Raisi as Judiciary Chief on March 7 to replace Sadegh Larijani, whom Khamenei *appointed as EDC Chairman on December 30. (The Judiciary Chief is co-equal with the president and the speaker of Iran’s parliament. They are at the top of one of the three branches of the formal Iranian government). Raisi’s appointment to the Judiciary places him among some of Iran’s most powerful clerical leaders. Many of these past position holders, including Amoli Larijani and the late Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, have been considered likely successors to Khamenei. Raisi is also a close ally and student of Khamenei. Before Raisi’s presidential candidacy in 2017, Khamenei *appointed him head of the Mashhad-based bonyad Astan Quds Razavi, a position that granted Raisi not only custodianship of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad but also oversight over an enormous economic empire with diverse, international business interests in oil and gas, construction, agriculture, transportation, pharmaceutical products, food goods, and financial investment services. Khamenei’s appointment of Raisi to lead Astan Quds Razavi was significant and demonstrated Khamenei’s affinity for and trust in Raisi.
Raisi’s subsequent election to the Assembly of Experts first vice chairmanship may indicate a clerical preference for Raisi over other top contenders. The Assembly of Experts *elected Raisi to this position on March 12, less than one week after Raisi’s appointment to the Judiciary. Raisi received 43 votes of the 73 cast, an absolute majority, whereas other Supreme Leader-hopeful Sadegh Larijani received only 27 votes. The Assembly’s preference for Raisi over Larijani for the important leadership board post may suggest that the Assembly considers Raisi a more suitable leader and better choice for next Supreme Leader over Sadegh Larijani.
Raisi’s succession is not guaranteed, but he may have the edge over Larijani. Sadegh Larijani’s contention to be Khamenei’s successor improved following his replacement of the late Ayatollah Shahroudi as EDC Chairman and as one of the six jurisprudential members of the Guardian Council. Shahroudi was widely considered to be a top candidate to replace Khamenei up until his *death on December 24, 2018. Recent events and Larijani’s personal background may work against him, however. Larijani was born in Iraq, whereas Raisi was *born in Mashhad, where Khamenei was also born. Larijani is the youngest sibling of the politically powerful Larijani family which is viewed negatively by many Iranians due to their perceived political omnipotence (Ali Larijani, Sadegh’s brother, is speaker of the parliament). Raisi’s only politically relevant family member is Ayatollah Ahmad Alam ol Hoda, who is a close confidante of Khamenei and serves as his representative to Khorasan Razavi Province. Larijani has also been accused of involvement in a land grab corruption scandal. Raisi may oversee the case if the Judiciary becomes involved, potentially leading to a situation where Raisi could bring charges against Larijani, although that remains very unlikely. Raisi has tried to establish himself as a youth-friendly regime official and remains active on social media. His Instagram account has over 500,000 followers. Larijani has no official account and his Instagram fan page account has less than 4,000 followers. During the 2017 presidential elections, Raisi *met with the popular Iranian pop star Amir Tataloo (who is now estranged and living abroad) in order to make him more attractive to Iranian youth. Raisi’s path to supreme leadership is by no means guaranteed but his recent appointments and relative popularity may serve him well against Larijani.