When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, died in 1989, thousands of mourners flooded the streets, worried about what would happen next. The mood is very different now.For more than six months, Iranians have been shows a lot, chanting the death of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the founder’s ailing successor as supreme leader. Yet no one knows who will succeed him when he’s gone — or whether the last theocracy in the Middle East will actually exist.
Despite several cancer scares, the 84-year-old may be on for years to come. But doubts are growing about his health and the strength of his system, Velayat-e Faqih, or clerical rule. Even religious Iranians are beginning to lose faith in the theocracy.
The regime is clearly unpopular. Elections have long been a game.Nonalignment in foreign policy looks increasingly hypocritical snuggle in china and Russia. Succession inevitably shakes up the status quo, says Pejman Abdolmohammadi of the University of Trento in Italy. “It could hasten a full-blown authoritarian takeover or trigger a democratic transition.”
In theory, the succession should be smooth. The current situation is that the supreme leader has the final say on all affairs of the country, which puts him far above the president who is elected every four years under undemocratic conditions. In contrast, the Supreme Leader is chosen by a meeting of 88 clergy. If the hooded elite is unsure who to choose, a trio of the president, the chief justice and a senior jurist will decide and confirm their choice by referendum. Behind parliament, a three-member junta including one of Mr Khomeini’s sons persuaded Mr Khamenei, a midlevel cleric, to become president in 1989. A formal constitutional referendum was then held.
Thirty years later, Mr Khamenei is reluctant to name a successor. Meanwhile, the regime has been rocked by demonstrations and dissent following the death last September of a young woman detained by the so-called morality police.
The religious backgrounds of the two main contenders are even weaker than Khamenei’s. Ibrahim ResiA former chief justice and now a reactionary president, he studied in a seminary for a relatively short period of time. “He has only the qualifications of an imam of a mosque,” said Mustafa Fahas, a Lebanese Shia Muslim scholar who monitors developments in Iran. Mr Raisi’s father-in-law was an ultra-conservative clergyman who, among other things, wanted to ban music. This has alienated him from most Iranians.
Another frontrunner is Mr Khamenei’s second son, Mojitaba.He runs the supreme leader’s office and is close to Hussein Taib, who until recently became Iran’s powerful intelligence chief Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s Praetorian Guard body. The younger Khamenei was recently hailed on state television as an ayatollah, the highest rank in the clergy, but he has never held an official post and rarely appears in public. Many staunch supporters of the regime disliked the prospect of dynastic succession: their revolution was based on the overthrow of the king.
Compared with the situation in 1989, the new major factor is the rise of the IRGC. It now has whip hands on clergy. For three decades, Mr Khamenei has built his power to fend off his rivals in the clergy — and the risk of street opposition. According to the London-based think tank Chatham House, the IRGC’s share of parliamentary membership has risen from 6% in 1980 (a year after the revolution) to 26% today, while its share of civilian staff has fallen from 52% to 11%. %. Clergy used to send clergy to IRGC units; now the IRGC trains its own clergy and sends them to seminaries, said Ali Alfoneh, an American expert who wrote a book on Iranian leaders succession book.
As the IRGC grows in power, many Iran observers believe its commanders can retain the supreme leadership but reduce him to a puppet. Saied Golkar, another US expert on Iran, said it probably preferred Mr Raisi because he was “a useful idiot who fit the bill”. It is conceivable that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps could have taken power and ruled by trash clerks, and replaced it with an equally authoritarian alternative. The IRGC may be more pragmatic than the ruling clergy, trying harder to avoid conflict with an already disaffected middle class. On foreign policy, however, it could be just as tough, abandoning Mr Khamenei’s vaunted fatwa against nuclear weapons and openly racing to build one. While continuing to oppose the U.S. presence in the Gulf, it may be more flexible in its negotiations with the Great Satan.
Some argue that the IRGC can impose a new social contract in which Iranians are free to dress, drink and dance as they please. Iran may have a female education minister, its first in more than 40 years. (Islamic firing squads shot the last human in 1980.) Yet political freedoms would shrink further.
This process may have already begun. The morality police routinely turn a blind eye to women who don’t wear the veil. But the crackdown on dissent and crime is as tough as ever. Executions rose by more than 80 percent to 576 last year. If the IRGC dictatorship restores stability while relaxing personal morality, many Iranians may accept it.
But true reformists would certainly fight for a secular civil service, not rule by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or clergy. Earlier this year, former president Mohammad Khatami called for a “fundamental shift”. A popular former presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has broken his silence after 12 years under house arrest to call for a referendum on whether to keep Iran an Islamic republic.
Whatever the form of the transition, it is likely to be messy. Only one thing is certain, Mr Farhas said, that he has close ties to the clergy within the regime. Mr Khamenei will be “the last real faqih”. In other words, the clerical rule envisioned by the founders of the 1979 revolution would come to an end.
© 2023, The Economist Limited. all rights reserved. From The Economist, published with permission.Original content available at www.economist.com