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Politics

The Perils of Being Heir Apparent in Iran

May 27, 2024
7 min read
The death of Ebrahim Raisi, a prominent figure groomed as a potential successor to the 85-year-old Ali Khamenei, has dramatically altered the landscape of Iranian politics overnight
The death of Ebrahim Raisi, a prominent figure groomed as a potential successor to the 85-year-old Ali Khamenei, has dramatically altered the landscape of Iranian politics overnight
In the 45-year history of the Islamic Republic, Hossein Ali Montazeri is the only person officially recognized as the deputy and successor to the leader
In the 45-year history of the Islamic Republic, Hossein Ali Montazeri is the only person officially recognized as the deputy and successor to the leader
After Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's disqualification from the 2013 presidential elections, Zahra Mostafavi, daughter of Ruhollah Khomeini, expressed her discontent in a letter to Ali Khamenei
After Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's disqualification from the 2013 presidential elections, Zahra Mostafavi, daughter of Ruhollah Khomeini, expressed her discontent in a letter to Ali Khamenei
Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi Shia, emerged as a significant figure within Ali Khamenei's seminary, assuming roles of influence despite the leader of the Islamic Republic being only 50 years old and lacking established authority
Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi Shia, emerged as a significant figure within Ali Khamenei's seminary, assuming roles of influence despite the leader of the Islamic Republic being only 50 years old and lacking established authority
Sadegh Larijani, a lesser-known figure in a prominent political family, rose to prominence when he was appointed as the head of the Judiciary amid widespread protests following the 2009 presidential elections
Sadegh Larijani, a lesser-known figure in a prominent political family, rose to prominence when he was appointed as the head of the Judiciary amid widespread protests following the 2009 presidential elections
Ebrahim Raisi, the most likely successor to Khamenei over the last 35 years, died in a helicopter crash
Ebrahim Raisi, the most likely successor to Khamenei over the last 35 years, died in a helicopter crash

The death of Ebrahim Raisi, a prominent figure groomed as a potential successor to the 85-year-old Ali Khamenei, has dramatically altered the landscape of Iranian politics overnight. 

However, Raisi is not the first candidate for Iran's supreme authority to meet such a fate.

Hossein Ali Montazeri: Removed from Power Two Months Before Possible Succession

In the 45-year history of the Islamic Republic, Hossein Ali Montazeri is the only person officially recognized as the deputy and successor to the leader. 

The Assembly of Experts, now in its sixth term, has taken such action only once before the death of a sitting Supreme Leader.

On July 16, 1985, during the first term of the Assembly, Montazeri was officially elected as the deputy to the then-leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. 

However, Montazeri held this position for less than four years.

About two months before Khomeini's death, the Assembly annulled Montazeri's designation and dismissed him.

Montazeri's dismissal followed the disclosure of secret negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the American National Security Advisor for the purchase of weapons, known as the "McFarlane" or "Iran-Contra" affair. 

The Islamic Republic subsequently prosecuted and executed the whistleblower who had revealed the talks for the pre-revolution murder of a cleric.

Montazeri's significant differences with Khomeini stemmed from his strong opposition to the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, which he termed the "greatest crime" of the Islamic Republic. 

Ebrahim Raisi, who won the presidential election in 2021 and was considered Khamenei's successor, was a member of the group that Khomeini ordered to carry out these executions, known as the "Death Committee."

Had Montazeri not been dismissed in April 1989, he could have become the leader of the republic upon Khomeini's death in June of that year. 

When asked in an interview why he did not exercise self-control to become the leader after Khomeini and initiate desired reforms, including stopping the execution of political prisoners, Montazeri responded, "It was not clear that I would outlive Khomeini." 

Montazeri died in 2009 amid unprecedented demonstrations against the presidential election results.

The Mysterious Death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: Found in a Pool

After Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's disqualification from the 2013 presidential elections, Zahra Mostafavi, daughter of Ruhollah Khomeini, expressed her discontent in a letter to Ali Khamenei. 

She claimed her father had considered Rafsanjani as his successor. 

In the letter, Mostafavi wrote, "On the same day I heard the Imam's approval of Your Highness's leadership, I also heard his approval of Mr. Hashemi, as the Imam mentioned his name after yours."

Rafsanjani, at the June 4, 1989, Assembly of Experts meeting, relayed Khomeini's support for Khamenei's leadership, significantly influencing Khamenei's election. 

Mostafavi's 2013 letter stated, "You were rightly voted in by the experts, so I saw no need to mention him then. 

But now, with the Guardian Council disqualifying him for President, I remind you, sisterly, that this only creates a rift between the Imam’s friends and undermines the public's faith in the system and the elections."

Rafsanjani was often seen as a potential successor after Khamenei's election. 

However, their relationship soured after the contentious 2009 elections, with Khamenei publicly aligning more with Ahmadinejad. 

In January 2018, Rafsanjani died suddenly after an incident in the Expediency Council's pool. 

Subsequent tests revealed high levels of radioactivity in his body, leading his family to label his death as "suspicious." 

Rival politicians claimed he was "killed" in the pool.

Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi: A Leader Emergent from Iraq

Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi Shia, emerged as a significant figure within Ali Khamenei's seminary, assuming roles of influence despite the leader of the Islamic Republic being only 50 years old and lacking established authority. 

Shahroudi, a founding member of the Shia Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, witnessed an influx of Iraqi Shia into Iran during the Iran-Iraq war initiated by Saddam Hussein.

Appointed by Khamenei, Shahroudi served as the second head of the Judiciary for a decade. 

Both before and following his tenure in this position, he held positions as a jurist within the Guardian Council, all appointments being made by Khamenei himself. 

Further showcasing Khamenei's confidence, Shahroudi was entrusted with leadership of the council tasked with resolving disputes between the three branches of power, a testament to the Iranian leader's trust in his former teacher, despite his Iraqi origins.

Ali Akbar Natiq Nouri, in his memoirs, identified Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi as a plausible candidate for future leadership of the Islamic Republic. 

Following the death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei appointed Shahroudi as the head of the Expediency Council during a period marked by his declining health, which ultimately culminated in his death in 2019. 

Subsequently, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a prominent conservative figure, alleged medical malpractice as the cause of Shahroudi's death, decrying the removal of one of Khamenei's potential successors. 

Bahonar claimed that during a surgical procedure, instead of addressing the intended gland issue, Shahroudi's kidney was mistakenly removed, leading to fatal consequences.

Sadegh Larijani: The Nation's Disliked Figure and Government's Unpopular Politician

Sadegh Larijani, a lesser-known figure in a prominent political family, rose to prominence when he was appointed as the head of the Judiciary amid widespread protests following the 2009 presidential elections. 

His tenure was marked by a disregard for legal and judicial norms, as evidenced by the violent crackdown on protestors and the politicization of the judiciary.

During his ten-year tenure, Larijani obtained permission from Supreme Leader Khamenei to bypass procedural principles, particularly in economic cases, eliminating the appeal stage and imposing a swift 10-day period for death sentences. 

The hasty execution of Vahid Mazloumin dubbed the "Sultan of Coins" due to currency inflation, stands out as one of the darkest episodes of his tenure.

After stepping down from the judiciary, Larijani returned to the Guardian Council. 

Following the death of Mahmoud Hashemi, he was reinstated as the head of the judiciary by Khamenei's decree. 

However, his time in this role was marked by domestic power struggles, notably with Ebrahim Raisi, who succeeded him as head of the judiciary. 

Raisi's arrest of Akbar Tabari, Larijani's executive deputy, on corruption charges signaled a shift in power dynamics within the Islamic Republic.

Larijani's rift with the establishment became apparent when the Guardian Council, which he was a part of, rejected his brother Ali's qualification in the 2021 presidential election, paving the way for Raisi's victory. 

Larijani publicly criticized the council for being dominated by security forces and refused to sign Raisi's presidential credentials. 

He subsequently resigned from the Guardian Council.

His political influence waned further when he failed to secure a seat in the sixth term of the Assembly of Experts, signaling an end to his eight-year tenure in the assembly.

Ebrahim Raisi: The Rise and Fall of a Potential Supreme Leader

Ebrahim Raisi, the most likely successor to Khamenei over the last 35 years, died in a helicopter crash. 

Known for his roles as Prosecutor General, Prosecutor of the Special Clergy Court, First Deputy of the Judiciary, and notoriously as the "Butcher of Tehran" for his involvement in the 1989 mass execution of political prisoners, Raisi's prominence soared following his appointment to the administration of Astan Quds. 

This position, overseeing the vast financial resources of the largest Shia endowment in Iran, significantly bolstered his influence.

Raisi ran against Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election, during which Rouhani labeled him as someone who only knew execution. 

Despite losing the election, Khamenei appointed Raisi as the head of the Judiciary. 

In 2021, Raisi was nominated for the presidential election and secured victory by eliminating all significant rivals, including Ali Larijani.

Uniquely, he served as both president and head of the Judiciary, marking a first in the Islamic Republic's history. 

For three years, Raisi served as Iran's president and was widely recognized as the frontrunner to succeed Khamenei. 

However, his death in a helicopter crash disrupted these plans just a day before the formation of the sixth term of the Assembly of Experts.

In countries like Iran, where the leader typically serves for life, the succession plan is often shrouded in speculation. 

Currently, potential successors include Alireza Arafi and Mohammadreza Modarresi Yazdi, both from the Guardian Council and Mojtaba Khamenei, the second son of the current leader. 

However, the official list of candidates remains confidential, known only to a select few within the Assembly of Experts and proposed to Khamenei himself.

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