In 1989, the founder and then-ruler of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, died and was succeeded by Ali Khamenei, who has been head of state since. But he is now eighty-three years old and reportedly suffering from prostate cancer, and it is unclear who will replace him. Shay Khatiri observes:
The office that English-language media routinely refer to as Iran’s “supreme leader”—really just “leader” in Farsi—is analogous to a Roman Caesar, a dictator perpetuo. The larger system is something like a non-hereditary monarchy. The constitutional succession mechanism entails secret meetings among the elderly clerics of the assembly, who argue about whom to elect until finding a compromise that satisfies the competing factions.
Khatiri consider several possible outcomes, and concludes that an agreement that divides power among representatives of the main factions is most likely:
The Islamic Republic’s constitution allows for a leadership council to serve in place of a single leader. While there is no limit on how many people can serve on the council, the assembly will likely settle on three. The public justification will elevate the reputations of Khomeini and Khamenei beyond human possibility: surely no single man could replace either of these otherworldly men, but perhaps three men working together could have the combined virtues and wisdom of these past leaders.
The political justification is that three spots would permit a power-sharing agreement among the factions while preempting the emergence of a cult figure with aspirations to unquestioned power that resemble those of his immediate predecessor.
Other possibilities ramify outwards from here—many of them violent, and a few of them peaceful. The death of Khamenei will be the Islamic Republic’s greatest survival crisis. It could be exploited to bring positive change to Iran. It could also become a wasted opportunity or a preventable tragedy.