Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has ruled Iran for 33 years, but now reports suggest he is gravely ill following years of deteriorating health potentially leaving a power vacuum in the Islamic Republic.
Khamenei remains partially paralyzed due to a 1981 assassination attempt. In 2014, he survived prostate cancer surgery. The 82-year-old has appeared weak in increasingly sporadic public appearances.
Khamenei underwent surgery last week after falling “gravely ill” and is currently on bed rest under observation by a medical team, the New York Times reported on Friday, citing four people familiar with Khamenei’s health condition.
Khamenei “had surgery some time last week for bowel obstruction after suffering extreme stomach pains and high fever,” the NYT reported, citing one of the people.
Khamenei is currently being monitored “around the clock” by a team of doctors after undergoing the surgery, according to the report.
In his more than three decades of rule, the leader of the Middle Eastern country has shaped a unique network of relations and centers of power. Sooner or later, Khamenei’s death will come and reveal how ready Iran is for such an eventuality.
In the case of the death of the Iran’s most powerful person, what would happen?
According to Michael Rubin, a senior research fellow and expert in Iranian affairs at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, there are many likely scenarios as to the immediate aftermath of Khamenei’s death.
A period of transition
He suggests in a report the “transition could be quick, slow or not at all.”
The holder of the post (Ayatollah Khamenei is only the second since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979) is selected by a body of 88 clerics known as the Assembly of Experts; made up of members who have been first vetted and approved by both the Ministry of Intelligence and the Intelligence Department of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Iran’s Guardian Council
Its members are elected by Iranians every eight years, but the candidates first have to be approved by a committee called the Guardian Council. Members of the Guardian Council itself are either directly or indirectly chosen by the supreme leader. He therefore has influence over both bodies.
Over the last three decades, Ali Khamenei has ensured the election of conservatives to the assembly who would follow his guidance on choosing his successor.
Once elected, the supreme leader may remain in that position for life.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, March 1, 2022.
According to Iran’s constitution, the supreme leader has to be an “ayatollah,” a senior Shia religious figure. But when Ali Khamenei was chosen he was not an ayatollah, so the laws were changed to enable him to accept the job.
Therefore, it is possible laws can be amended again, depending on the political climate when the time to choose a new leader comes.
“In theory, the Assembly of Experts chooses the next leader but they could take days, weeks, or months,” Rubin said. “Perhaps a singular candidate will consolidate control quickly, or perhaps those who suspect they cannot triumph will filibuster any choice.”
For the past few months Khamenei’s son Mojtaba Khamenei, who also is not an ayatollah and therefore cannot technically inherit the position of supreme leader from his father, was accelerated to the title on the back of his father’s ill health.
Experts warn that this move is likely to be opposed by President Ebrahim Raisi who was promised the position himself.
“President Ebrahim Raisi and/or Khamenei’s son Mojtaba could succeed to the leadership individually or together,” suggests Rubin.
Or, a compromise could emerge, he said.
“After all, until just a few months before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 death, all bets were on Grand Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri whose candidature collapsed amongst clerical intrigue. Factional competition can manifest itself in violence not only on the Iranian street, but also as terrorism abroad as candidates compete to be the most hardline.”
A power play by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
Another option, Rubin said, is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might tire of “operating behind the curtain and simply seize power for themselves.”
“After all, they will be loath to sacrifice control over Iran’s nuclear program, most powerful military, and economy to any new leader. The question then becomes whether Iran would be a military dictatorship akin to Egypt or just a continuation of an ideological Islamic Republic absent a clerical figurehead.”
However, warned Rubin, in no scenario is stability certain.
“When Khamenei dies, Tehran will be the prize. The Revolutionary Guards may lock down the capital, leaving a comparative vacuum along Iran’s periphery, a likelihood from which numerous ethnic groups and neighboring states might seek advantage. Welcome to civil war.”
Catherine Perez-Shakdam, a Middle East expert from the Henry Jackson Society, said that the subsequent infighting in a post-Khamenei era could lead to the whole regime “imploding.”
The collapse of the regime will have a massive impact on international affairs with the Iran nuclear programme still unresolved since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal a few years ago, she warned, in a report run by the UK’s Express newspaper.
Khamenei, 83, has been the supreme leader of Iran since 1989. He is the country’s highest authority and has the final say on all state matters.