Iran’s Supreme Leader Is Ailing, and He Has No Clear Replacement

Sept. 19 2022

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.

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More about: Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran

 

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship