By Amir Taheri
Is Tehran preparing the ground for the succession of “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Rife for many years, speculation attained a new degree of intensity earlier this month with a number of declarations by various officials, among them the revelation at a press conference by Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami that the Assembly of Experts, the organ supposed to choose the next “Supreme Guide”, had appointed a committee to pick candidates.
Khatami claimed that the committee had been in place for years, and had already “noted” 10 potential candidates whose names could only be supplied to Khamenei.
Both claims are open to question.
Khatami wants us to believe that there is neither immediacy nor urgency and that no single candidate could start building a profile as the successor.
Nevertheless, the fact that the issue is raised in public may be a sign that urgency is involved. The bit about “10 potential candidates” is designed to prevent the focalization of attention on any one of the mullahs regarded by Tehran political circles as possible successors to Khamenei.
The claim that the Assembly of Experts chooses the “Supreme Guide” is equally open to doubt.
The first “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini wasn’t elected but simply declared himself as a new Imam and acted as if he had divine mandate. Khamenei wasn’t elected either, but merely acclaimed by the Assembly after the late Hashemi Rafsanjani, flanked by Khomeini’s son Ahmad, claimed that the late “Imam” had designated “Ali Agha” as successor.
Khatami’s statement as spokesman for the Assembly of Experts, includes a hint that the next “Supreme Guide” may be named by Khamenei who will be given “the chosen names” with the implicit notion that he could strike any of them off, retaining the assembly’s position as nothing but a rubber stamp.
In regimes where one man holds absolute or semi-absolute power the temptation to dictate the future is always present.
In other words, the constitutional mechanism for electing the “Supreme Guide” has never been tested.
Foreign commentators often describe the Islamic Republic as a theocracy ruled by the “top mullah”. The truth is that the Islamic Republic is a secular regime that uses a religious narrative; in it, the mosque has been annexed by the state not the other way round. Nor is the “Supreme Guide” the “top mullah” by any stretch of imagination.
Khomeini was one of some 200 Ayatollahs and never considered by others as “supreme “ in anything. His limited knowledge of theology and history and his inability to master Persian and Arabic at a high level meant he would never attain the summit within the Shi’ite clerical hierarchy. Khomeini was a politician and owed his place in the Iranian panorama to the success of his political movement against various rivals and adversaries.
Khamenei’s knowledge of theology and history is certainly superior to that of Khomeini.
He also has a better command of both Persian and Arabic. Had Khamenei built a career within the Shi’ite clerical hierarchy he would have had a good chance of reaching higher rungs of the ladder than Khomeini.
Nevertheless, Khamenei has never been on that ladder.
From the start he has been a political figure, serving as Deputy Defense Minister and, later, President of the Republic.
The fact that the “Supreme Guide” dresses up as a mullah does not mean that he is head of the clergy, and even less that the clergy govern Iran. When Archbishop Makarios was President that didn’t mean that the Orthodox Christian priesthood ruled Cyprus. Nor did Archbishop Abel Muzorewa’s presidency symbolize rule by the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe.
Even Mullah Hassan, who briefly ruled Somalia, never claimed he was ruling on behalf of Islam; he called himself Shah. In old Yemen where Imam Yahya could claim he exercised on behalf of the Zaidi faith, he emphasized his political rather than any religious function as a member of the ulema.
Thus, the post of the “Supreme Guide” in Iran’s Islamic Republic is a political one and choosing its occupant is a political process.
And in any domain that is political what matters is to mobilize energies needed for winning power.
Propelling Khamenei as Khomeini’s successor was relatively easy.
The traditional clergy was anxious not to get involved in politics and had no desire to advance any of its leaders as candidate for the post. More importantly, Rafsanjani’s scheme was to enlarge the powers of the President of the Republic, a post he soon captured for himself, by reducing that of the “Supreme Guide”.
Rafsanjani’s calculation didn’t work. Khamenei did not turn out to be the quiet and obedient little mullah more interested in committing poetry than exercising power. He acted the opposite of the role that Rafsanjani has scripted for him by enlarging the powers of the “Supreme Guide”.
Moreover, while Rafsanjani applied his energies to enriching his family and entourage, Khamenei surrounded himself with a new generation of the military, men who now occupy all key positions of command in the army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the Baseej (Mobilization) and the regime’s security services.
If Khamenei, soon to be 78, lives as long as Khomeini he may be around for another decade. But even if he stumbles his successor won’t be chosen by the “Assembly of Experts” but by military-security networks that provide the backbone of the system.
Rafsanjani and his associates have talked of constitutional reform for years. In his last speech, Rafsanjani suggested that the constitution be amended without spelling out what he meant. A similar call has come from Ayatollah Nateq Nuri former Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament.
One idea is to officialize the political nature of the “Supreme Guide” by merging it with the post of the President. Another idea is to de-emphasize its political aspect by creating a five-mullah council charged with nothing more than deciding whether legislation conforms to Islamic tenets. That means promoting the President, which currently has little real power, as head of state, commander of the armed forces and ultimate decision-maker on executive matters.
Radical critics of the regime, argue that Khamenei’s demise should signal the end of the Islamic Republic itself, allowing Iranians to choose a different path for their nation.
Whatever happens next, one thing is clear: the debate has already started on the future of Iran after Khamenei.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.