When Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini passed away on June 3, 1989, only few thought his successor would be Iran's then president Ali Khamenei. Most of the media's speculations said the Khomeini's successor would be his son, Ahmed, who was thought to be the most favored candidate. The second option suggested by reporters and observers was a power struggle that might have ultimately led to the collapse of the post-revolution state. The second day the country's assembly of experts chose Khamenei as the country's new supreme leader, unfolding a new chapter in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The man who stepped into Khomeini's shoes almost three decades ago turned 77 on July 16th. Things have changed a lot since that first day when a man from outside the Grand Ayatollahs' club became Iran's leader. Back then, Khamenei was a Mujtahid, a level within the seminary that's equivalent to a PhD degree in the world of academics, while an Ayatollah is similar to a professor with a Post-Doctoral degree, and a Grand Ayatollah, as Khomeini was and few others are, is the level in which a cleric becomes a doctrinaire. Khamenei has now evolved into a Grand Ayatollah along with being a leader with a legacy that many are speculating over who will inherit it when the time comes. Medically, according to a source close to Khamenei's medical team whom I spoke to recently, the Iranian leader is "very sharp, healthy, and practices walking and hiking weekly." Khamenei underwent in September 2014 a successful prostate surgery in one of Tehran's governmental hospitals and has since then returned to his daily schedule that starts every day at 5 AM and ends at 10:30 PM. A source close to Khamenei's office revealed in a conversation with me. This contradicts with several reports that have been published inside and outside Iran during the past few years suggesting that Khamenei's situation was critical and that the search for a replacement was underway.
Indeed the question of succession does exist in Iran on different levels. Even Khamenei himself tackled this issue on several occasions; the most famous one was when he spoke to the newly elected members of the assembly of experts in March this year on the characteristics of his successor. He underlined the importance of the successor being a "revolutionary" and advised the 82 members not to "be bashful" in selecting the next Supreme Leader. It's believed that the Iranian leader does have in mind a bunch of candidates that meet his criteria for a new leader. Some of those already occupy senior positions in the establishment, are under 70 years old, and, most importantly, are not controversial. Khamenei's recommendations could help in narrowing down the number of candidates, but this doesn't mean it'll be the only element in the process.
When he was elected, Khamenei was aware that the charisma of his mentor and predecessor was unbeatable. Khomeini was the founder of the republic, the father of the revolution, and the only man whose notions only few would dare to oppose. The new leader went directly towards building a different model from the essence of the same regime using his eight-year experience as President, and his fondness of planning ahead. He decided to institutionalize the establishment, mainly the leadership. The first thing he did was replacing the famous and popular Jamaran residence of Imam Khomeini with what is now called "Beite Rahbari" or the Leader's House. Situated in the center of the capital, the new address was designated as the supreme leader's official residence and workplace, and whoever becomes the leader of Iran in the future will have to live and work there. Alongside this move, Khamenei handpicked his assistants and advisers, and appointed his representatives throughout the country and in main official institutions.
Iran is one of a few countries in the Middle East where politics is renowned for its complexity. Things may seem obvious and clear to those who are looking from the outside, but on the inside, everything is subject to compromises and deals. The assembly of experts is the body that votes to choose the new leader, but those expected to influence the vote are individuals from the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the seminary in Qum, add to that the role both the conservative and the reformist camps take in the process. Any attempt by any side to monopolize the decision would have dire consequences on the whole establishment, and this is what all the above understand very well.
Ayatollahs Sadek Larijani and Mahmoud Shahroudi are among the strong candidates. Both have a record of serving in official positions that goes back a long way, and are already members of the assembly of experts. Today, Larijani is the head of the judicial authority succeeding Shahroudi, who's the head of the arbitration council that mediates disputes between the three branches of the state. Shahroudi was once described by Khamenei as a Godsend. President Hasan Rouhani, a Mujtahid himself, is one of those who could be considered fit for the position. He was with Khomeini in Paris before the revolution. Later on, he went from being a Member of Parliament to Iran's main negotiator and secretary of national security. After that, he became a member of the assembly of experts, and finally a president. Hojatolislam Ibrahim Raisolsadat (Raisi), another Mujtahid and head of "Astan Quds Razavi" that embraces the tomb of Imam Reza, Shia's 8th Imam, and one of Iran's wealthiest charitable foundation, is believed to be on the candidates' list too. Raisi was born in 1960 and took on several positions within the judiciary. Hasan Khomeini, the grandson of Imam Khomeini, is also on the list. The 44-year-old Mujtahid has a strong popular base, but still needs to overcome the main obstacle that previously prevented him from running for the assembly of experts, i.e. "the lack of adequate clerical knowledge", as decided by the guardian council that determines who can run for any elections in the country.
All the above mentioned are potential candidates and there could be more, yet it's clear that none of them has the charm of being one of the first revolutionaries, the legitimacy of being part of Khomeini's team, or the honor of being a "Khomeini disciple", except for Hasan Rouhani. This poses serious challenges in a system built originally on spirituality. The future leader will fall into the system built by his predecessor making it easier for the regime to cope with the change, and harder for the new comer to leave a mark quickly.