Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a key appointment on Sunday. Photo: Handout via Reutersdelivers a speech in a meeting with military commanders in Tehran, Iran, February 7, 2017. Leader.ir/Handout via REUTERS
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in a meeting with military commanders in Tehran on February 7, 2017. Photo: Leader.ir / Handout via Reuters

When is a republic not a republic? When an incumbent leader lays the groundwork for his son to succeed him, which is exactly what Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is doing.

The dynastic style of this once-in-a-generation political transition makes a mockery of the Islamic Republic’s professed ideals and will lead to further misery for the Iranian people. 

The leader-in-waiting, Mojtaba Khamenei, already has many supporters, thanks to his father’s efforts, which, despite the opaque nature of Iranian politics, are abundantly clear.

Ayatollah Khamenei, who is 81 and said to be ailing, has already ensured he has an entirely compliant, conservative parliament by getting the Guardian Council (the body that approves election candidates) to disqualify a record number of candidates in last year’s parliamentary election.

The Supreme Leader will further strip away whatever remains of Iran’s deeply flawed democracy and the regime’s legitimacy by stage-managing the upcoming presidential election in June for the sole purpose of ensuring a smooth succession for his 51-year-old son.

In recent months, Ayatollah Khamenei has filled key regime positions with the right people to ensure a smooth succession. Last summer, Hossein Najat, a Mojtaba ally, was made commander of Sarallah Headquarters, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base responsible for protecting Tehran’s political elite and, most importantly, for crushing anti-government protests.

Another Mojtaba ally, Hossein Ta’eb, is head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization. Mojtaba also has connections in the IRGC, the Basij paramilitary force and the Assembly of Experts, an elected clerical body responsible for appointing the next supreme leader. He also has access to vast financial resources, which he will dispense as patronage to secure additional support. 

Mojtaba currently is a Hojjat-al-Islam, a comparatively junior position in the Shiite clerical hierarchy, but his supporters already have begun to refer to him as “Ayatollah” (a prerequisite to becoming supreme leader).

An Iran led by Mojtaba Khamenei as supreme leader will be even more driven by ideology. Domestically, there will be further clampdowns on civil liberties as well as the window-dressing that gives the Iranian regime the veneer of a democratic republic.

The political opposition and ordinary citizens will find that the outlets for democratic expression become even more limited, for Mojtaba and his cronies have shown in the past that they are willing to spill blood to preserve the regime’s grip on power.

Much of Mojtaba’s worldview was shaped by his religious education in Qom under arch-conservative clerics like Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who did not believe in democracy and advocated the use of violence to quell political opposition. It is likely that this informed Mojtaba’s decision to send in the Basij in 2009 to crush anti-government protests that broke out that year after a disputed election.  

When it comes to foreign policy, Mojtaba’s allies, all veterans of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, are vehemently against the 2015 nuclear deal and have railed against both President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

It is well documented that the IRGC benefits from Iran’s heavily sanctioned “resistance economy,” mainly through its control of smuggling routes. As a result, Mojtaba will have little incentive, whether ideological or otherwise, to steer his country back toward compliance with the nuclear deal or even toward tempering Iran’s regional foreign policy. 

One potential difficulty could come from Ebrahim Raisi, currently the head of the judiciary and the apparent frontrunner for president. Other possible candidates include Saeed Jalili, former Speaker of the parliament, Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, former mayor of Tehran, and IRGC commanders Saeed Mohammad and Mohammad Dehghan.

Reformists and moderates have yet to announce a candidate. While he may be running for the presidency, Raisi’s true aspiration, it is said, is to become supreme leader. To this end, he can claim “impeccable” revolutionary credentials, having presided over the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. 

It is possible that Raisi will make a play for the supreme-leader position using the constitution. Though it is not standard practice, this allows for the convening of a Leadership Council, comprising the president, the head of the judiciary and a cleric from the Expediency Discernment Council, an administrative assembly appointed by the Supreme Leader to advise him and to resolve conflicts between parliament and the Guardian Council.

Raisi also may prefer to remain as chief of the judiciary and drop out of the presidential race after the first round, leaving the way open for victory by an ally. This would give him control of the Leadership Council and buy him some time to shoehorn himself into the post of supreme leader. 

That, however, could lead to conflict with the Mojtaba faction, with each camp determined to outdo the other in terms of their political conservatism and hawkish foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the Iranian people, who will play little part in the selection of the supreme leader, can only watch helplessly as their meager store of freedoms shrink even further and their country plunges into political turbulence. And if a power vacuum should ensue, it could lead to civil unrest or a power grab by the IRGC.

As for the nuclear deal, if the US and Iran are unable to return to it between now and June, then the deal’s chances look even more bleak in the period after.

However the situation unfolds, foreign-policy planners in the region would do well to make contingency plans.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Dnyanesh Kamat

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.