Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran, spoke to participants in a January 22 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about what's likely to happen in Iran after the passing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Alfoneh began by discussing the function and the role of the Supreme Leader in the Islamic Republic's political system. The "guardianship of the jurist" concept underpinning the 1979 constitution of Iran's Islamic Republic grants the Supreme Leader enormous power. He is accountable only to the Assembly of Experts, a small group of clerics vetted by jurists from an institution called the Guardian Council that is itself indirectly beholden to the Supreme Leader.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and its first Supreme Leader (1979-1989), was "deeply influenced" by Plato's concept of the "philosopher king." Fearing that the people will be deceived by demagogues, he defined the role of the Supreme Leader as "guardian" of the people, but neither elected by nor accountable to them.
Under Khomeini's successor, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader functioned as "the final arbiter of ... conflicts between ... competing power systems in the regime." The Iranian system was designed to have multiple parallel institutions, "meant to keep each other in check" to forestall a coup attempt. The rivalry between the various power centers was for years kept in balance by Khamenei's provision of support for weaker institutions.
Although nominally the Assembly of Experts would choose the new Supreme Leader, in practice the choice will reflect "the balance of power within the system." Whoever has the support of the dominant power centers will be the successor to Khamenei. This was the case when Khamenei was chosen in 1989 to replace the late Khomeini during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, a "brilliant kingmaker of the regime, ... managed to manipulate all power centers" to position Khamenei as a "compromise candidate," even though Khamenei was "perceived by everyone as a weak leader." Even though he was not a high-ranking Shia cleric, as required by the constitution, once Khamenei was elected by the clerics and civil servants beholden to Rafsanjani, the constitution was changed to accommodate Khamenei.
Much as Rafsanjani's network manipulated the process of choosing Khomeini's successor in 1989, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will determine the next leader of the Islamic Republic. The IRGC is currently the most important power center in the regime's competitive power system.
In recent years Khamenei has abandoned the "old rule of balance of power between competing institutions." In the face of mounting external pressure from U.S. sanctions and growing domestic pressure from popular anti-government protests, he has had to turn to the IRGC to secure the regime's survival. No longer only a foreign intelligence organization, it is now involved as a domestic intelligence and enforcement organization protecting the regime from the restive public.
Having built up a positive reputation with the Iranian public for fighting foreign adversaries while other institutions focused on internal repression, IRGC leaders were not particularly eager to play this role. "They want[ed] to put somebody else in front of the protesters – the Basij militia, or even better, the regular police," explained Alfoneh. But "the survival of the regime [was] at stake" and "no other institution" could handle the threat.
In return, the IRGC has demanded economic monopolies that have made it immensely powerful. The IRGC will be easily capable of manipulating the system to influence who will succeed Khamene'i. The aging clerics of the Assembly of Experts charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader will effectively be "held hostage" by the IRGC, which will "dictate who is going to be the next leader of the Islamic Republic."
The IRGC will "dictate who is going to be the next leader of the Islamic Republic."
Although some have speculated that the IRGC will eschew the clerical "guardianship of the jurist model" to declare a "naked military dictatorship," Alfoneh argued that growing public resentment of the IRGC makes that unlikely. In the eyes of the public, two dueling perceptions of the IRGC are at play. Many Iranians respect the IRGC as "national heroes" who sacrificed during the Iran-Iraq war, but the systemic corruption throughout the IRGC has generated resentment. Worse still, the IRGC has oppressed Iranians across the political spectrum, from the "upper middle class people in big cities" who protest fraudulent elections to "poor people who went to the streets to protest against their miserable economic conditions." In contrast to the past, the same national heroes who defended the country against the Iraqi invasion in the 1980s are now "perceived both as corrupt and also as a force oppressing Iranians." Consequently, the current system will be maintained for now with the certainty that Khamenei's successor will be beholden to the IRGC.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.