Plenty of observers have hailed the incoming presidency of Ebrahim Raisi as an early prelude to his leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Others, though, read it the opposite way: as a ploy to remove him from the running to replace Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
One name has been missing from most of the debate – and it happens to be that of one person who could have orchestrated all of this. It's that of Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader, who is extremely well-connected and seen by many as his natural heir-apparent.
Becoming the eighth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran will not affect Ebrahim Raisi's holding a position on the Iranian interim leadership council. This little-understood body will manage the affairs of the country after Ali Khamenei dies, until such a time as a new leader is appointed.
Pursuant to Article 111 of the Constitution, this council comprises the president, the head of the judiciary, and one of jurist from the Guardian Council selected by the Expediency Council. By becoming president Raisi has only shuffled sideways. That said, whoever replaces him as Chief Justice might change the dynamics.
Mohsen Kadivar, a prominent scholar of religion and the Islamic Republic’s clerical caste, has predicted that either Alireza Arafi, Qom’s Friday prayer leader, Ahmad Khatami, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer leader, or senior cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Modarresi-Yazdi will be the chosen Guardian Council member when the time comes. As such, he believes, the tussle for future leadership will be between Raisi, one of them and Mojtaba Khamenei.
Raisi has a much weaker seminary education than any of these men – or even that of his predecessor as head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, although the latter is unlikely to be the Guardian Council pick due to his damaged reputation. At the same time, Kadivar points out, in the current conditions “jurisprudence and religious status do not play a significant role in the judiciary or the Assembly of Experts."
Before the elections, old Iranian reformist and would-be candiate Mustafa Tajzadeh listed Raisi, Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and conservative jurist Ahmad Jannati as the three he expected to see end up on the council. This prediction, however, was probably made on the assumption Ghalibaf would run in the presidential election.
In an interview with Le Monde, Ahmad Salamatian, a long-time analyst and member of the Islamic Republic’s first parliament, said he believed the mass disqualification of candidates in 2021 aimed to give Raisi a clear run for the top executive role – but only so that he could replace Ali Khamenei after earning public legitimacy.
This point has been echoed by countless other observers. But over all these conversations, the specter of Ali Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba Khamenei, looms large.
Mojtaba Khamenei and the Experience of Ahmad Khomeini
Some see Raisi as an obedient servant that Mojtaba Khamenei and his entourage, including Hossein Ta'eb, the head of the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence service, could rely on to do their future bidding.
Hassan Shariatmadari, secretary-general of the Iran Transition Council, which agitates for a peaceful transition to democracy in Iran, believes: "The Mashhadi gang, headed by Raisi, may give [Khamenei] more piece of mind that they will support his family after he is gone."
But equally, as has been said many times before, Mojtaba Khamenei is likely to have observed the sidelined fate of Ahmad Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini’s son. Mojtaba will therefore know that no matter how pliant any future leader might seem, they could quickly pull the rug out from under him.
With his extensive contacts, Mojtaba would also have been well-positioned to put Raisi in the running for president in a bid to keep him off the leadership list. Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has recently made the point that the next president may come off the worse for wear in public opinion because of the extreme difficulties Iran is already in.
“You see the situation of Mr. Rouhani now,” she said in an audio recording that was later shared with IranWire. “How dissatisfied everyone is, how many people are against him. See what has become of his popularity among the people. The next president is likely to find himself in the same situation, because the problems are extraordinary, and widespread.”
Ayatollah Khamenei's death will, of course, change everything, just as Ayatollah Khomeini’s did before him. Ahmad Montazeri, the son of revolutionary-era cleric and founding father of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Montazeri, holds that Khomeini's early death disrupted his son Ahmad’s plans to become leader.
The timing of Khamenei's death could similarly make a difference. Those who assume Raisi is now in a stronger position to replace him assume Khomeini will die within the next four to eight years; if not, however, at the end of his eight-year presidency, Raisi may be excluded from the running and experience the fate of Hassan Rouhani before him.
The End of Inhibition - and the Games Begin
One of the main reasons Mojtaba Khamenei is tipped to become the next Supreme Leader, apart from being Khamenei’s son, is that most of the other influential figures from his father’s time - such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani or Ghasem Soleimani – are no longer alive.
On the other hand, he faces strong push-back from those who warn against leadership of the Islamic Republic becoming hereditary. This seems less likely to be an obstacle now, the brazen engineering of Raisi’s “election” indicates that for the Islamic Republic’s powerful players, inhibition, or even so much as deference to due process, is now a thing of the past.
Taqi Azad Armaki, a professor of sociology at the University of Tehran, has also spoken about the role of other influential individuals in the office of the Supreme Leader whom he believes have been working to sideline Raisi. Among these he counts Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a principalists politician and Mojtaba Khamenei's father-in-law.
"Haddad-Adel was leading this important project," Azad Armaki said. "After this election, the president will be discredited, and his reputation will be ruined. He can neither be the catalyst for the selection of the next leader, nor the next leader himself.
"The real concern is Mr. Mojtaba will become the leader. The project of the Supreme Leader is for Mojtaba to become the next leader. Were it otherwise, they would never have nominated Raisi as a candidate without a rival... He was elected unrivalled so that he wouldn’t look like a champion, or like a true winner.”
One possible piece of evidence in support of this view were recent remarks by Vahid Haghanian, the Supreme Leader's special affairs deputy, that described the presence of weaker candidates such as Mohsen Rezaei and Abdolnaser Hemmati alongside Raisi as a “divine blessing”. Images of Mojtaba Khamenei are beginning to circulate widely again in a move that for now at least, is hard to interpret.
Beyond doubt, the 2021 presidential election has changed the internal political conditions in the Islamic Republic. By whose design and for whose ultimate benefit remains to be seen.