An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
Early this month, the Iranian rumor mill cranked into overdrive amid reports that Iran’s 83-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who survived prostate cancer surgery in 2014, was again gravely ill. On September 16, the New York Times reported that emergency bowel surgery had left Khamenei bedridden and too frail to sit upright, citing four anonymous sources said to be “familiar with his health situation.” In the wilder corners of Persian-language social media, claims that Khamenei was on his deathbed gave way to speculation that he had already died. As has happened for more than a decade, such rumors quickly morphed into feverish conjecture about how Iran’s Assembly of Experts, the body of 88 Islamic jurists who choose the supreme leader, would select Khamenei’s successor and lively debate over the relative merits of the clerics jockeying for the role.
Reports of Khamenei’s death soon proved to be greatly exaggerated. On September 17, the ayatollah made a televised appearance at a mourning ceremony for Arbaeen, the national holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, whose death during the seventh-century Battle of Karbala is a foundational event in Shiite history and theology. At the ceremony, Khamenei could be seen not just sitting upright but standing, waving, and striding around with a microphone exhorting his audience to ignore “bandits” whose lies might undermine their faith. The cane Khamenei has used in public for more than 40 years was nowhere to be seen.
But within hours, Khamenei’s carefully choreographed reemergence had been overshadowed as protests that erupted in northwestern Iran that morning at the funeral of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini—whose death following her arrest by Tehran’s religious police over an improperly tied headscarf sparked widespread outrage—began to spread to nearby cities. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s government, distracted by the president’s first appearance on the world stage, at the UN General Assembly in New York, was caught off guard. Over the next few days, as Khamenei made several more public appearances, all exhaustively covered by Iranian state media, the demonstrations—many of them led by young women, some of whom brazenly burned their headscarfs in public to protest the mandatory veiling requirements—spread to more than 80 cities across Iran. The protests have continued to intensify, and calls to abolish the religious police have given way to full-throated attacks on the clerical establishment and on the supreme leader himself. The current protests are now believed to be the most serious challenge Iran’s government has confronted since the Green Movement protests in 2009. A series of challenges facing the Iranian regime—widening frustration over social restrictions; outrage over economic collapse and mismanagement; and seething anger at Khamenei and a clerical establishment that has shown little regard for the needs of the people—have now converged into a crisis of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic.
A MURKY SUCCESSION PROCESS
The protests present the Iranian regime with a far more immediate crisis than the selection of Khamenei’s eventual successor. But the opaque succession process—and the underlying questions over its legitimacy and lack of accountability—will haunt Iran’s political system long after the unrest has been quelled. Having succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Khamenei is now the longest-ruling leader of a Middle Eastern state, and his death will herald a significant transition for both Iran and the wider region. Competition to succeed him will be intense, and whatever the outcome, the way the transition unfolds will have far-reaching consequences for Iran’s relationship with its Arab neighbors and Western adversaries.
Iran’s succession process has formal and informal components that are reflective of the elected and unelected bodies in its hybrid religious system, where the supreme leader sits above the fray yet maintains overarching power and influence. Iran’s constitution codifies that the Assembly of Experts nominates and elects the next leader. When Khamenei dies or becomes incapacitated, the assembly will convene an emergency session. From there, as was the case in 1989, candidates will be nominated, most likely from the assembly itself, followed by speeches and voting. Khamenei was formally recognized after receiving a two-thirds majority, which in his case came with the backing of high-level clerics and the deathbed blessing of Khomeini.
To prepare for the forthcoming succession process, leaders of the Assembly of Experts announced in 2016 that they had assembled a committee to delineate the ideal candidate’s qualifications and identify a shortlist of contenders. But there has been no public distribution or discussion of that list. Khamenei has said before that the next candidate should be nothing short of “revolutionary”; the constitution lays out the following characteristics: “just, pious, aware of his age, courageous, resourceful, and with an administrative ability.”
Competition to succeed Khamenei will be intense, and the way the transition unfolds will have far-reaching consequences.
In 1989, before the voting process began, the Assembly of Experts first discussed the possibility of electing a leadership council instead of choosing a single successor. At the time, the assembly voted against that outcome, believing that a council would further embed factionalism in Iran’s political system. The constitution was amended to remove the possibility of a shared leadership council from future succession discussions. Nevertheless, the constitution makes clear that until the election concludes, a council composed of Iran’s president, the head of Iran’s judiciary, and one representative from the Guardian Council, the body that holds veto power over legislation, will temporarily assume leadership duties.
And in considering future scenarios, the idea of a leadership council is often mentioned as a potential post-Khamenei development. Although a leadership council could provide a compromise solution that brings together important factional figures to manage Iran’s fractured political system, constitutional revisions are needed to make this scenario a real possibility. For now, without a consensus on the path forward, the jockeying seems most likely to produce a candidate who is acceptable to both the clerical establishment and Iran’s “deep state,” which has gained significant power under Khamenei.
Beyond the formal façade, in fact, Iran’s deep state is informally guiding the succession process. Although the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the military entity empowered to protect Iran’s national security, is often considered to be synonymous with Iran’s deep state, there is more to it than that. An intricate security, intelligence, and economic superstructure brings together individuals and institutions whose goal is to preserve the fundamental revolutionary nature, vision, and security of the Islamic Republic. The deep state includes the judiciary, some members of the religious bureaucracy, charitable parastatal foundations, various semi-private entities that are critical for financing, and most important, the powerful office of the supreme leader, an entity that wields detailed oversight over all of Iran’s political systems and processes.
Khamenei’s office vets the ministers of foreign affairs, intelligence, interior, and defense—as well as Iran’s ambassadors to Iraq, Russia, Syria, and other important allies—before their names can be sent to parliament for approval. The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization is also situated in the supreme leader’s office and has jurisdiction to police against infiltration. This cozy arrangement has empowered the IRGC to detain citizens and dozens of dual nationals for perceived national security violations.
The deep state was nurtured under Khamenei’s leadership, early in his tenure, to compensate for his perceived weaknesses as a religious authority and thus bolster his power within Iran’s factional political system. Over the years, Khamenei succeeded in marginalizing political opponents such as his one-time champion President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who played a critical role in Khamenei’s election, as well as members of the clerical establishment who did not support his leadership. The deep state became more visible during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, from 1997 to 2005, when it viewed reform from within as a threat akin to President Mikhail Gorbachev’s ideas of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union. Throughout Khatami’s presidency, the deep state began to assert itself beyond its security and economic base, gradually interfering in politics to stymie internal dissent, such as that seen during student-led demonstrations in 1999. Post-Khatami, Iran’s government used the same playbook to quell the 2009 Green Movement protests and the 2017–19 economic protests as well as to constrain the agendas of successive presidents. Today, without a doubt, the deep state is again leading the charge to crush the protests that are currently underway.
In preparing for the succession of a new supreme leader, the deep state seeks, above all, to preserve the status quo. Potential candidates are expected to come from within the circle of trust. And they are expected to harbor conservative ideological leanings and to have enjoyed a close relationship with Khamenei.
THE LEADING CONTENDERS
In recent years, Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, has often led analysts’ shortlists of contenders to replace Khamenei. Raisi’s religious credentials and past political positions clearly signal his proximity to the inner circle of powerful clerics. In 2016, Khamenei appointed him as the chair of Astan Quds Razavi, the powerful Mashhad-based economic conglomerate, and in 2019, he was made the head of Iran’s judiciary. Yet Raisi lacked name recognition. That changed with his 2021 election to the presidency, which gave him a national platform, setting him up to follow in Khamenei’s footsteps on the path from president to supreme leader.
At the same time, Raisi’s public profile also opens him up to greater public scrutiny, which could weaken his stature within the deep state. Raisi won a presidential election that had the lowest level of public participation in Iran’s history. He took office at the apogee of the United States’ maximum pressure sanctions, which have taken an economic toll on the Iranian economy. And Raisi has yet to deliver any policy victories. Despite months of negotiations, the Iran nuclear talks have yet to reach a positive conclusion that would see sanctions relief and Iran’s return to nuclear compliance. To Raisi’s embarrassment, Israel has infiltrated Iran and killed its most prominent nuclear scientist. Successive waves of protests have exposed the impact of economic and environmental mismanagement on the lives of ordinary Iranians and the depth of their anger at the heavy-handedness of the security state. With these challenges, Raisi could well be discredited as the competition for supreme leader intensifies.
Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba, is another oft-mentioned, albeit regularly discounted, candidate. Despite reports that Mojtaba has nearly completed enough religious teaching and study to become an ayatollah—a move that would give him important religious credentials—internal opposition figures are using the suggestion that hereditary leadership is coming to the Islamic Republic to further undermine the legitimacy of the clerical establishment. But Mojtaba is closely connected to the deep state’s security establishment and has the ear of his father. The deep state is also acutely aware that keeping members of the Khamenei family close could be essential to containing possible future opposition.
Many Iranians regard the notion of inherited rule as another betrayal of the revolution.
At the same time, many doubt that hereditary rule could ever be institutionalized in Iran’s theocratic system after the dramatic 1979 revolution that toppled Iran’s last shah, the Pahlavi dynasty, and hereditary monarchy itself. Iranians have long been angry at the notion that Khamenei was grooming his son as a successor, and many regard the notion of inherited rule as another betrayal of the revolution. In the protests that erupted across Iran in recent days, tens of thousands of marchers expressed their anger at both Khamenei and his son in unprecedentedly specific, personal, and obscene terms.
Other candidates whose names have circulated in the past, such as Sadeq Larijani, a scion of the influential Larijani clan, have been discredited by accusations of corruption. With both Raisi and the younger Khamenei becoming weakened candidates who might not muster a consensus, there is a chance that there will be a surprise pick: a previously obscure senior figure from within the Assembly of Experts who could emerge as an eleventh-hour candidate, someone the deep state could manage. It is important to remember that in 1989, Khamenei was not an obvious front-runner.
Alternatively, naming a leadership council that brings together three key figures could be revived as an attempt to salvage the process. As this uncertainty lingers without a clear consensus-based path forward or a robust set of candidates, succession will remain mired in conspiracy and opacity, further showcasing the state’s inability to take action on critical issues such as the Iran nuclear deal. One consequence of the smoke and mirrors is the political stagnation and factional competition that continues to weigh down Iran’s political system. And as the recent protests suggest, the old ways may not be able to withstand continued, increased scrutiny from ordinary Iranians.
The sheer force, velocity, and audacity of the latest protest movement and the speed with which concern over Khamenei’s health has given way to unprecedented public calls for his ouster have shocked many observers, as has the rage many protesters have directed at the broader theocratic system itself. Until recently, the clerical elite may have hoped that the succession process would unfold entirely behind closed doors, as it has in the past. But public anger has now squarely focused on Khamenei’s legitimacy and the legitimacy of the system he represents. Across Iran, thousands of angry protesters continue to chant “death to Khomeini,” “clerics get out,” and “Mojtaba, may you die and not become Supreme Leader.” As the deep state yet again unleashes the full force of its coercive power to shut down the protests, ordinary Iranians from all walks of life are watching closely. Should Khamenei die while Iran is convulsed by a protest movement on this scale, the challenge to the clerical system could become existential.