Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Immortal Khamenei?

Rumors that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has died began circulating yesterday in Tehran’s bazaar. Today, Iranian bloggers report an “abnormal atmosphere in the city” and increased presence of plainclothes agents in the capital. Such rumors circulate from time to time. Obviously, every rumor about Khamenei’s death to date has been false, but the ferocity of the rumors both reflect the opacity of information about Iran’s decision-making class, and the wishful thinking of a public that blames Khamenei and his cohorts for betraying the promises of freedom and democracy which underpinned the revolution.

It is worth considering, however, that one day, rumors of Khamenei’s demise will be true. Like taxes, death is certainty. What is uncertain, however, is what would follow.

The passing of Khamenei would represent a seismic shift in the Islamic Republic’s power equations. With no successor-designate, Khamenei’s death would unleash a huge power struggle.

Several things will happen once Khamenei dies. Officially, the Assembly of Experts, currently headed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, anoints the next Supreme Leader. Behind the scenes, however, the major power brokers—whether on the assembly or not—will jockey for power and seek consensus. If the decision is fractious, the assembly may decide to appoint a clerical council in the interregnum period.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) will seek to influence the selection, either of the interregnum council or of the next Supreme Leader. The most radical scenario—but an increasingly plausible one—would be for the IRGC to lobby to abolish the institution of leadership, thereby transforming the Islamic Republic into a presidential system and giving ultimate power to current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a veteran of the IRGC and its primary benefactor.

Under any circumstance, governance in the Islamic Republic is fast degenerating into a military dictatorship with an eclectic ideology composed of Shi’a Messianism, Iranian nationalism, and populism.

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