Towards the end of 2009, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei began to pay frequent visits to the religious capital of Iran, Qom. At the time, many observers believed that the main purpose behind those tours, and Khamenei's meetings with influential religious figures, was a desperate attempt by the Iranian leader to maintain and strengthen his fast eroding support base among the Ayatollahs, and hence the religious community.
Although such analyses had some merit, they missed a crucial point: the key reason behind Khamenei's trips to Qom was less about his own authority, and more about the authority of Iran's next supreme leader and preparing the public for some fundamental political changes to ensure a smooth transition to the post-Khamenei era.
During his nine day tour of the western province of Kermanshah in mid-October, Ali Khamenei suggested that the post of Iran’s popularly elected president might be abolished and replaced by a premier chosen by parliament.“The current political system of the country is a good and effective system. But if one day, possibly in the distant future, it’s felt that a parliamentary system is more suited for electing those responsible for the executive branch, then there would be no problem in making changes in the system,” he said.
Initially, his comments were taken as the strongest indication so far of the ever worsening relations between the Supreme Leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With the president’s occasional attempts at bypassing the Supreme Leader since his re-election in June 2009, it was commonly asserted, Khamenei was seen as intent on empowering parliament and weakening the executive office. The reasoning was that since Iranian presidents have a popular mandate, they’ve always been in a strong position to challenge the Supreme Leader by claiming that they represent the will of the people, and that they should therefore have the final word on key foreign and domestic policy issues.
To be sure, this formula – a popularly elected president and a permanent Supreme Leader – has proven to be the most challenging structural characteristic of the Iranian political system since the inception of the presidential system in the early 1980s. Ayatollah Khomeini had problems with President Banisadr, while Khamenei has had problems, to varying degrees, with Presidents Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad.
Still, there are two key problems with this view of Khamenei’s motivations.
First, Ahmadinejad only has about 18 months left of his presidency, and he has already been seriously weakened with the threat of an embarrassing impeachment. Second, Khamenei has other means available at his disposal with which he can keep the political ambitions of presidents at bay. The Majlis (Islamic Consultative Assembly), mass media, and the security forces are all controlled by his office, and he can utilize them to marginalize future presidents – just as he has done so against all three presidents during his reign.
As such, Khamenei's support for the establishment of a parliamentary system has more to do with his, and indeed the entire clergy class’s, concerns about the ways in which a popularly elected president could challenge the future Supreme Leader than a simple concern with his own authority and political fortunes.
As with other autocracies around the world, timely management of the succession process is of paramount importance to the preservation of social and political stability in Iran. In this context, what really matters is whether or not there’s a suitable candidate for the position of Supreme Leader who can be sworn in once Khamenei is out of the picture. Unfortunately for the regime, here is where the real trouble lies given that there isn’t a single candidate who ticks all the boxes. Mohammad Yazdi, Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-e Kani, Abdullah Javadi-e Amoli, Mesbah Yazdi, and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi are too old and unpopular. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's business interests and nepotism of the past, as well as his ongoing falling out with conservatives, rule him out of the race. Nor can Ayatollah Khomeini's grandchild, Hassan Khomeini, be expected to stand any real chance of nomination since his criticisms of the regime have antagonized many influential clerics who have accused him of “betraying his grandfather’s path.”
All this means the future Supreme Leader will need to be an outsider who is relatively unknown to the public, and whose most valuable political capital is the current leader’s endorsement. This, in turn, implies that not only will he lack political experience and a support base of his own, but he will also need much more time, compared with a more politically astute figure, to establish his network of political allies and consolidate his authority. In present day Iran, where the public is fed up with both the regime and Islam as a political force or ideology, it becomes clear that the initial phase of a post-Khamenei era will almost certainly be characterized by a destabilizing power struggle between a weak Supreme Leader and a strong president in a highly volatile environment.
No doubt aware of this, Khamenei is likely to be paving the way for his successor by proposing a constitutional change that will ultimately eliminate the presidency by putting in place a parliamentary system in which the Majlis will be at the forefront. By abolishing the presidency, Khamenei would be trying to ensure that his departure from the scene will coincide with the emergence of a weak Supreme Leader and a weak executive branch. In this way, the centers of power will arrive at some kind of equilibrium, which would help ensure the regime’s survival. The clergy class would also be able to preserve its political power by having a representative in the office of the Supreme Leader who exercises more or less equal authority compared with that of the prime minister.
All this said, there are many obstacles to be overcome if this idea is to become a reality. Khamenei needs to ensure that his allies win most of the seats in the upcoming parliamentary election so his proposal will receive enough votes to become a law. More importantly, he needs to ensure that the next president will be an individual willing to take an initiative to the Majlis that will ultimately cost him his job. Who that individual may be is difficult to see, but unconfirmed reports point to Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, as Khamenei’s favorite.
And, even if all goes according to plan and the regime maintains its hold on power while Khamenei is alive, history shows that Khamenei's new strategy for securing the regime’s survival may still face some problems. In the 1940s, the combination of a weak Shah, a strong Majlis, and international pressure on Iran led to the eventual election of an anti-status quo prime minster – Mohammad Mossadegh – whose threat to the political establishment was only eliminated through covert means orchestrated by foreign powers.
Nima Khorrami Assl is a security analyst at Transnational Crisis Project, London. His work has appeared in The Guardian and Foreign Policy Journal, among other publications.