Khamenei Keeps a Close Eye on Who Will Succeed Him

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Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, casts his vote during elections for the parliament and Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, in Tehran on February 26. Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Many in the Western media are hoping the apparent success of reformist and moderate candidates in Iran's February 26 election for parliament and the Assembly of Experts is a sign that the nuclear deal has sparked a long-term moderating trend in the Iranian regime.

Maybe. What is more important is how Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sees the election.

First, the election itself. Once the Guardian Council eliminated the vast majority of actual reformist candidates, President Hassan Rouhani and his political ally, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, adjusted course in their campaigns. Both released lists endorsing not only the remaining reformist and moderate candidates, but also a number of the regime's more pragmatic conservatives and hard-liners, some of whom did not realize they had been "converted" to the other side.

Rafsanjani and Rouhani calculated that if they could not seat a parliament of their allies, at least they could mobilize their supporters to draw votes away from their most virulent critics.

The results were a vindication of Rouhani's and Rafsanjani's strategy. In parliament, the moderate-reformist bloc won 83 seats, hard-liners won 78, independents won 60, and 64 seats will be filled in runoff elections scheduled for early April. Conservatives and hard-liners will retain a majority in the Assembly, which may choose the next supreme leader after Khamenei, but reformists and moderates will have a larger voice.

Neither body will become a paragon of liberalization and reform anytime soon, but Rafsanjani and Rouhani scored important symbolic victories. Of the three most powerful hard-liners on the Assembly, Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Mohammad Yazdi (who is also the body's chair), only Jannati retained his seat. The hard-liners' anticipated nominee for parliament speaker and several other prominent hard-liners lost their seats as well.

The supreme leader has made no direct comment about the results, but he appears pleased with the election itself. Khamenei praised the relatively high turnout as a validation of the Islamic Republic's system. More importantly, the vote went smoothly, with no significant protests or accusations of fraud. This was a clean election by Iranian standards, such as they are.

Khamenei is intensely worried about his legacy, though. Keeping the Islamic revolution Iran started in 1979 going after his passing is foremost among his worries.

He recognizes that by backing Rouhani and Rafsanjani, the Iranian people have expressed desire for greater prosperity and openness to the world. But these are changes Khamenei will want to control as much as possible.

What could be his next moves?

1. Trim Rouhani's reform agenda.

Despite the challenge of low oil prices, the senior leadership agrees that the Iranian economy needs significant reform. Much to the chagrin of Rouhani's hardline critics, the president has delayed action on this year's budget and the next five-year development plan until the new parliament sits in May, and the Guardian Council has still not approved the new Iranian Petroleum Contract.

These decisions shape which elites benefit most from new oil revenue and international investments as well as how much stake foreigners can own in Iranian firms—all questions likely to put Rouhani at odds with Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

2. Intervene in the parliament speaker selection.

Rouhani's allies are unlikely to achieve an overwhelming majority in parliament, so whoever is elected as speaker could be critical. Despite being a conservative, current speaker Ali Larijani has a good working alliance with Rouhani and may stay. Prominent reformist Mohammad Reza Aref could stand for speaker as well.

If moderate-reformist candidates do well enough in the April runoffs to form a governing bloc, Khamenei may feel the need to prevent Aref from taking the speakership. A reformist-oriented parliament is something the supreme leader would prefer to avoid.

3. Block rehabilitation of moderate leaders.

Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami played a major, if subtle, role supporting Rouhani and Rafsanjani's list. He accomplished this despite the official media ban on his pictures or quotes ever since he questioned former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contested re-election in 2009.

Then, on March 6, Rouhani broke the taboo, publicly praising Khatami and calling the media ban a "joke." The president's attempt to bring Khatami back into the public sphere is a challenge to hard-liners and a test of how much leash Khamenei will give Rouhani after the elections.

4. Shape his own succession.

This election did not drastically alter the composition of the Assembly of Experts, but the body's formal role in selecting the next supreme leader makes selection of its Chair very important. If Rafsanjani, Rouhani, or a moderate-reformist is elected chair, Khamenei may actively attempt to shape elite discussion of how his successor will be chosen after he dies.

A real wild card: Khamenei could step down to help guide the succession process.

5. Ramp up the internal crackdown.

Political arrests and media restrictions were already accelerating after the nuclear deal, as Khamenei feared an inevitable onslaught of Western goods, culture and ideas. Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani (Ali Larijani's brother) criticized the election results, blaming foreign influence.

If Khamenei sees both the executive and legislative branches taking too strong a reformist turn, he may further unleash the courts on the people and Rouhani's allies.

The supreme leader is not likely losing much sleep over any of these concerns. The Guardian Council, headed up by hard-liner Ayatollah Jannati, ensured the election would not swing Iranian politics too far left, and he will check any future excesses coming out of the parliament.

Expect some not so gentle reminders from Khamenei, though, if anyone starts getting bigger ideas.

J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This report was produced in cooperation with the Iran Team of the Critical Threats Project.

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