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Preparing for the Next Supreme Leader

Iran’s Supreme Leader (SL), Ayatollah Khamenei, has been the subject of many rumors during his three decades in power. A fair share of political gossip has circulated about Ayatollah Khamenei’s political views, family, and relationship with other elites, but the most common subject is the state of his health. The speculation regarding his health escalated recently, especially since April 2019, when Ayatollah entered his 80s. However, the reason his health is at the center of the discussion is beyond his well-being and more related to the bigger picture: his succession.

Iran is a relatively large country with a population of about 90 million, and during the last four decades, its political influence has gone beyond its border, making the country the center of the Shia world. Hence, it is fair to say that whoever succeeds Ayatollah Khamenei position will inherit a great deal of authority and power but also a vast ocean of challenges and struggles; domestic unrest, a fragile economy, international isolation, tensions with the West, conflicts in the region, a large foreign-based diaspora, and rival political elites at home. However, it seems that the Iranian establishment is well aware of the challenges and has been taking precautionary measures on multiple levels to guarantee a smooth transition of power.

The Rejuvenation of the Administration

Tehran began its mega project of paving the way for the next SL sometime in 2015. On December 17, 2015, Ahmad Khatami, a senior member of the Assembly of Experts, which is in charge of electing the next SL, stated that the assembly had formed a secret committee to search for a proper candidate to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei. Later, in 2019, Ayatollah Araki, another senior member of the assembly, claimed that the committee had made a confidential list of the most appropriate candidates to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei, and only three members of the Assembly were aware of it. According to Araki, the nominees’ names have been kept secret, and the rest of the assembly members have not been informed of the names. It is unknown why names have been kept confidential; possibly because of security concerns or to protect the candidates’ reputations against defamation campaigns. But what is known is that the Islamic Republic is narrowing the field of clerics who may sit in Ayatollah Khamenei’s seat to expedite the transition process.

In addition to selecting candidates, Tehran has endeavored to prepare the national bureaucratic and leadership system for the next SL. During the last two decades, the Islamic Republic has been dealing with the issue of aging. A significant portion of Iranian political appointees and high-level civil servants started their employment during the first decade of the revolution. Thus, in the last few years, several senior political elites have passed away or dealt with severe illnesses. Many of the country’s aging political elites refuse to step down but, in the meantime, are not fully capable of fulfilling their duties. Additionally, the lack of circulation of officials has made many Iranian youths feel disconnected from their elderly leaders.

In light of this issue, over the last decade, the Islamic Republic has launched its “rejuvenation of the administration” campaign to bring relatively younger men to the country’s government. In this context, Iran has appointed many graduates of Imam Sadiq University, a private elite Islamic university that is under the direct control of the office of SL, to a variety of positions in Iran’s civil administration and judiciary, turning Imam Sadiq University into the alma mater of many high-level governmental employees. This is to ensure that civil leadership will remain in the hands of loyal fundamentalists.

Since most of the new appointees are from religious communities, it’s hard to say whether this strategy will bridge the gap between the establishment and the general youth. However, appointing younger officials in the Islamic Republic institutes may eliminate one of the many challenges facing the next SL: dealing with officials who believe their right to leadership positions because they are elderly and were appointed by the previous SL. This is the very same obstacle that Ayatollah Khamenei experienced in his early days of leadership with people like Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili, who was appointed as the attorney general of Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini. In addition, the new SL can have peace of mind about not needing to fill as many vacancies in the government because of the passing of old elites.

Adjustments in Foreign Policy and Regional De-escalation

The Islamic Republic’s recent attempt to clear a path for its next leader is not limited to domestic affairs. Tehran has also been implementing new changes in its foreign policy on both regional and international scales. It seems that Iran—knowing that any grand detente with the United States is likely to be revisited by the next U.S. administration—has decided to instead strive for harmony on the regional level. In this context, Iran has been endeavoring to restore ties with its major rivals in the Arabian Peninsula. On March 10, after almost a decade of military and diplomatic hostility, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume diplomatic relations during the China-brokered peace talks, and Tehran opened its embassy in Riyadh on June 6, 2023. Furthermore, Iran has been restoring its relations with the United Arab Emirates, as on March 16, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, former general secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, visited the UAE to hold security talks, during which both nations agreed to resume relations, resulting in the appointment of Iran’s first ambassador to the UAE in seven years.

It seems that Iran’s regional de-escalation has paid off as Saudi Arabia’s navy took over the evacuation of 65 Iranian citizens from Sudan, and for the first time in many years, the annual Arab League Summit in May 2023, ended without a condemnation of Iran. Also, the recent attempts of the UAE and Saudi Arabia to once again recognize Iran’s major regional ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which was expedited after the Iran-Saudi pact, might be the outcome of Iran’s regional de-escalation. It would make sense for Iran to try to secure its achievement of saving Assad in Syria by negotiating with the Arab World to accept the Assad regime as legitimate.

Freezing International Conflicts and Focusing on Friends

In addition to regional de-escalation, Iran has been attempting to “partially” freeze some of its international conflicts, releasing two French citizens who were being held in Iran. Recent talks with the United States over a prisoner swap are also evidence of this strategy, as the issue of imprisonment of Western nationals and Iranians with dual nationality has always been a source of conflict between the West and Islamic Republic.

Also, Iran has been working on crisis management over the primary source of its international conflicts: its nuclear program. In early March, Iran pledged cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and later allowed the IAEA to reinstall cameras in its nuclear facilities and partially reconnect online monitoring of sites. Iran’s Supreme Leader’s recent remark on June 11th, expressing his view that there is “nothing wrong” with a nuclear deal with the West, provides further hope for those in the West who are advocating for a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear crisis. This statement suggests a potential willingness on Iran’s part to engage in diplomatic negotiations and reduce the chances of a military confrontation.

When a country’s foreign policy changes, it changes toward everyone, including allies. Hence, Iran’s policy toward friendly nations has also seen new developments. Brokering peace talks between Iran and Saudi is only a fraction of the rapid expansion of Sino-Persian cooperation. In March 2021, Iran and China signed a 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement that Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president at the time, called a “strategic accord” that would develop bilateral relations on all fronts, including, military, trade, and security cooperation. Many aspects of the agreement have not been disclosed to the public, but according to reports, China has promised to invest $400 billion in Iran’s infrastructure and industrial sectors. If this comes to fruition, Iran’s next supreme leader would have a game-changer relief package in dealing with the Islamic Republic’s most prominent crisis: inflation and mass unemployment.

In addition to expanding ties with China, Iran has rapidly boosted relations with Russia. As the situation in Ukraine has worsened, Moscow has increased its reliance on importing arms from Iran to replace the Russian Army’s losses. As a result, Iran has become Russia’s top military backer and the Russo-Persian relationship changed from an uneven partnership in which Russia—Iran’s primary security and army partner—had the upper hand into an interdependent partnership in which Iran holds a degree of leverage over the Kremlin.

As a result of these developments, one might argue that Iran’s next supreme leader would be relatively free from regional competition, less concerned about foreign invasion, and confident in the support of allies, enabling him to place more focus on domestic affairs and settle into his position of power.

Will This Work?

Even though, on paper, Tehran has taken various measures to secure a smooth and conflict-free transition of power, it is difficult to be confident in its success. We should remember that all of these actions have been taken while Ayatollah Khamenei oversees all significant aspects of the country. The stability and survival of these preparations are backed by his authority. The real challenge will arise once he and his support of these steps are absent. Only then can we test these actions’ efficiency because only in the absence of Ayatollah can we observe how political elites and other factions intend to maneuver on the road that the current SL has paved for the next one.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: Iran

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Arman Mahmoudian is a lecturer of Russian and Middle Eastern Studies and a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics and International affairs at the University of South Florida (USF). He is also a research associate at the USF Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies, where he focuses on Iran’s regional policy and Shia militias in the Middle East. Arman has appeared on Al-Jazeera and the BBC and has been published by Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy, London School of Economics Middle East Center, Atlantic Council, Middle East Eye, Politics Today, New Arab, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and Trends Research and Advisory. Follow Arman on Twitter@MahmoudianArman.


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