Iranian state media reported Sept. 8 that the 75-year-old Khamenei underwent successful prostate surgery and would be discharged from the hospital in less than a week. The Office of the Supreme Leader's website carried pictures of key regime officials, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, visiting the supreme leader in the hospital.
While the state's transparency about the surgery appears somewhat unusual, it is an understandable effort by the regime to pre-empt rumors about the status of Khamenei's health. For years rumors have circulated that the supreme leader has terminal cancer. And now, as the Islamic republic is going through historic changes in domestic and foreign policy arenas, the stakeholders in the Iranian political establishment have an interest in projecting stability and continuity.
That said, the Iranian political establishment is well aware that Khamenei — along with the clerical core of the regime that has been at the helm since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989 — is elderly and unlikely to remain in power for long. The second most influential cleric and head of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is five years older than the supreme leader, though in better health. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the legislative and electoral watchdog the Guardian Council, is 87. In 2007, Iran's most powerful clerical institution, the Assembly of Experts, lost its chairman — 85-year-old Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, who led the assembly for nearly 25 years — and his successor, 83-year-old Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, has been in a coma since June 4.
Over the years, as the clerical leadership has aged, a civilian political class has risen, as has the power of the security sector centered on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In fact, much of Khamenei's 25 years as supreme leader has been spent balancing the various ideological factions and centers of power. Should he become incapacitated or die, the equilibrium among these stakeholders will suffer.
There is also the wider question of whether the Islamic republic — a convoluted political system of checks, balances, oversight and intrigue — is institutionalized enough after close to 40 years to withstand Khamenei's death without significant internal strife. Besides the eventual change at the head of the system, Iran suffers from considerable economic stress and is operating in a perilous regional security climate. In fact, considering that Khamenei is only the second supreme leader since the founding of the republic after the 1979 revolution, the entire political system is fast approaching an impasse. An examination of the situation both legally and politically is needed to understand what a post-Khamenei Iran could look like.
Legal and Political Aspects of Succession
Article 111 of the Iranian Constitution states that if a supreme leader is dismissed, dies, or resigns, the Assembly of Experts, consisting of 86 popularly elected clerics serving eight-year terms, will be responsible for appointing a new leader as quickly as possible. Until the appointment is made, a council consisting of the president, the head of the judiciary and a jurist from the Guardian Council, chosen by the Expediency Council, will assume the supreme leader's duties. If any member of this council cannot fulfill his duties, the Expediency Council will select a replacement, though the council's majority must be jurists. The article also states that if a supreme leader is temporarily unable to perform his duties due to illness or any other reason, the council shall assume his duties.
Given that Rafsanjani is a ranking member of the Assembly of Experts and also heads the Expediency Council, he and his pragmatic conservative camp — in which Rouhani is a key player — would have considerable influence in naming a successor. Should the pragmatic conservatives enhance their influence in the Assembly of Experts in elections scheduled for 2015, they would have even greater influence in naming the next supreme leader.
However, the hawkish opponents of the presidential camp are also aware of this, in part explaining why Guardian Council chief Jannati warned in April of a plot to take over the Assembly of Experts and said that the Guardian Council would be vetting the candidates closely. As has been the case over the years, the Guardian Council can use its veto over candidates to influence the composition of the Assembly of Experts. Therefore, a battle over who succeeds Khamenei will likely be fought in next year's Assembly of Experts elections, making the assembly's inevitable election of a new supreme leader a difficult process.
Given that Rouhani has three more years to go in his current presidential term (and is likely to get re-elected), and given Khamenei's age and the uncertainties about his health, the transition to the next supreme leader could very well take place under Rouhani's watch. This could give the president a great deal of authority, especially with the help of potential political allies, including Judiciary Chief Mohammad Sadegh-Larijani, who was appointed to a second five-year term on Aug. 14. Moreover, should Rafsanjani outlive Khamenei and remain head of the Expediency Council, the third member of the interim council would also likely be an ally of the president.
The Military's Considerations
One of the supreme leader's main sources of power is his role as supreme commander of Iran's armed forces. This gives him the authority to appoint the joint chief and top commanders of both the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Artesh. As Stratfor has highlighted in the past, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps derives its legitimacy from the clerical system, particularly the supreme leader. This provides the corps with a great deal of influence within the system, but it also makes the corps beholden to the top levels of the clerical establishment.
Khamenei, given his role as a close lieutenant of the founder of the republic and two-term former president, has been able to maintain this civilian supremacy over the military. His successor is unlikely to have that kind of power or credentials and therefore will be susceptible to the influence of the state's civilian institutions and of the military, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Ultimately, the outcome of the ongoing struggle between the Rouhani government and the corps (backed by the hardline clerics and politicians) will greatly determine the post-Khamenei era in terms of which side has more influence over the supreme leader. Even if Khamenei makes a smooth recovery from this operation, the impending power struggle in his inevitable absence is on the minds of many key players in the Islamic republic.