March 10, 2015 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Succession Battle: Does it Matter?

March 10, 2015 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Succession Battle: Does it Matter?

Mohammad Yazdi, a hardline ayatollah and former Judiciary chief, was elected chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts on Tuesday, defeating ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani by a margin of roughly two-to-one. The Assembly is the government body that selects and monitors the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, and the choice of its new chairman reflects the balance of power amongst Iran’s clerical elite.

In addition to his new role as assembly chairman, Yazdi is also among the leading candidates to replace Ali Khamenei – rumored to be suffering from prostate cancer – as supreme leader. Should he succeed, Yazdi is likely to continue the example of his predecessor by expanding the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iran’s foreign and security policies. 

Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, elected Yazdi’s deputy in Tuesday’s assembly election, is another potential candidate to succeed Khamenei. Shahroudi, another ex-Judiciary chief, was born in Najaf, Iraq, and represents the descendants of a quarter-million Iranians who were expelled from Iraq in 1979 and who are today over-represented in the Islamic Republic’s intelligence and security apparatuses.

Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, the current Judiciary chief, who also was born in Iraq, could be a dark horse emerging from that camp, should Shahroudi choose not to run. Their views on foreign and security policies are not vastly different from Khamenei’s, and both are likely to receive IRGC support.

For his part, Rafsanjani’s clout in Iran’s upper echelon has diminished since the summer of 2009, due to hardliners’ perceptions of him as sympathetic towards the country’s Green Movement. Aware of his limited chances for succeeding Khamenei, Rafsanjani advocates a constitutional amendment establishing a “leadership council” instead of a single supreme leader.

Should Rafsanjani fail to persuade the regime to establish such a council, Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, may emerge as the surprise frontrunner in the so-called pragmatic camp of Rafsanjani and current president Hassan Rouhani. Rafsanjani and the young Khomeini may genuinely try to liberalize Iran’s economy and continue Rouhani’s attempts at bringing the country out of isolation, but are not likely to have a security policy much different than that of the current supreme leader.

It is difficult to prophesy the outcome of Iran’s current power struggle, but given the likely candidates to lead the country, one scenario may be safely ruled out: that Khamenei’s eventual demise will usher in a moderate Islamic Republic at peace with the world.

Ali Alfoneh is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.