Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared in public on Saturday in a bid to defy the latest reports of ill health.
It is obvious to everyone, however, that the topic of succession looms over the 83-year-old leader, though precious few in the Islamic Republic have any knowledge of what this may entail.
Right now the only certainty is that Khamenei’s passing will inevitably usher in a new era in Iranian and Middle Eastern politics.
The ruthless Islamist ideologue ruled over Iran with an iron fist since becoming its second Supreme Leader in 1989 after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. It was he who shaped the modern Iran with its brutally oppressive power structures at home and aggressive expansionism abroad.
The Supreme Leader is picked by a body of 88 clerics known as the Assembly of Experts. Once elected, he may — and is exceedingly likely to — remain in office for life.
While Khamenei is widely regarded as lacking the magnetic charisma of his predecessor, he maintained his grip on Iran’s various factions through a personal network of loyalists, especially those affiliated with Iran’s most powerful force, the Revolutionary Guards.
It is highly likely that the Revolutionary Guards will try to thwart those candidates they regard as unfavorable, greatly diminishing the likelihood that anyone seen as dovish or reformist might get a shout.
Rumors abound on Farsi social media of a top-secret list of names, though no one knows its contents or even who has access to it.
There are, however, two names touted as favorites.
Although the post of Supreme Leader is not hereditary and Khamenei cannot simply pass it on to his offspring, his 53-year-old-son Mojtaba is, for obvious reasons, one of the front-runners.
A cleric like his father, Mojtaba exercises considerable influence within hardline circles and has inside knowledge of the Supreme Leader’s office, a dominant institution in Tehran with powers that often overshadow the state’s constitutional bodies.
The other name almost certainly on the list is that of President Ebrahim Raisi. Another hardliner with a well-documented track record of atrocities, Raisi has never refuted rumors about his ambitions to accede to the top post.
Much like the incumbent and his son, Raisi is skeptical of the possibility of a rapprochement with the West— this includes opposition to a nuclear agreement curbing Iran’s enrichment of uranium — and is strongly allied with the Revolutionary Guards.
The close involvement of the latter in the decision-making process raises even further the stakes in picking a successor and, some say, could trigger infighting and violence.
A more likely scenario, perhaps, is a protracted stalemate between different factions within the Iranian state that doesn’t spill over into the streets.
The bottom line, however, is that the next Supreme Leader is overwhelmingly unlikely to deviate from the authoritarian and belligerent policies that have grown to define Iran during Khamenei’s long and violent reign.