from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Is Iran’s Election a Litmus Test for the Next Supreme Leader?

Iranians are heading to the polls this Friday to decide Iran’s next president: incumbent Hassan Rouhani or his challenger Ebrahim Raisi. A victory for Raisi could mean he is being tested out for a potential run at being Iran’s next supreme leader.

May 18, 2017

A girl holds a poster of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi during a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran. Tima/Reuters
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Helia Ighani is the assistant director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iranians are heading to the polls this Friday to decide Iran’s next president: incumbent Hassan Rouhani or his challenger Ebrahim Raisi. In the Islamic Republic’s history, a president has never served only one term. However, a victory for Raisi could mean he is being tested out for a potential run at being Iran’s next supreme leader.

Neither Rouhani nor Raisi are reform candidates, and both are Shia clerics. But of the two, Rouhani is considered to be more centrist, demonstrated mainly by his ability to lock in the nuclear deal struck with the United States and five other world powers. After his seminary training and college education in Iran, Rouhani got his doctorate in the United Kingdom and has generally favored a more open approach in dealing with the West.

Raisi, on the other hand, would likely take a different approach than Rouhani in Iran’s dealings with the West. As a protégé of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he is potentially being groomed to succeed him. In the Islamic Republic’s political system, the president has limited powers and is outranked by the supreme leader, who oversees all branches of government, the military, and the media.

Khamenei appointed Raisi in March 2016 to head Iran’s largest bonyad, or charitable foundation, and oversees its estimated $15 billion in assets. This is particularly significant given that he also manages the Imam Reza shrine, the world’s largest mosque by dimension, which is based in Mashhad in northern Iran—coincidentally where both Khamenei and Raisi hail from. Raisi also studied under Khamenei at the Qom seminary.

Raisi, a close ally of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has served in several positions in Iran’s judicial system, including attorney general and deputy chief of justice. He also oversaw the mass murders of 1988—criticized by Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, once considered to be the successor to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The soon-to-be seventy-eight year old Khamenei clearly has succession on his mind, even though his health is stable and will likely remain in this position until his death. Raisi—fifty-six years old—would be an ideal successor given their kindred background, compared with the older and more estranged Rouhani, who is sixty-eight years old.

Rouhani, however, was a fervent supporter of the Islamic Republic from the start, joining Khomeini in exile in France before his return to Iran to overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty and establish the Islamic Republic in 1979. (Raisi, on the other hand, was only eighteen at the time of the Islamic Revolution.) Rouhani also served in various commanding posts during the war with Iraq in the 1980s and has stridently demonstrated his commitment to uphold the Islamic Republic’s tenets.

Additionally, Raisi and Rouhani are both members of Iran’s assembly of experts—a group of eighty-eight Islamic jurists tasked with “monitoring” the current supreme leader and overseeing the eventual succession process.

Since Iran has limited experience with supreme leader turnover, it is unclear whether Khamenei will choose a successor himself or leave it up to the assembly to decide. Iran has changed supreme leaders only once. In a rather botched attempt, Khomeini appointed Montazeri has his successor. However, Montazeri’s growing popularity and criticisms of the Islamic Republic created a ripple effect of disagreement among Iran’s rank and file clergy members. Only a decade old and emerging from an eight-year war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic’s fledgling regime sensed a vulnerability that Montazeri’s leadership could result in divisiveness and the eventual crumbling of the first Islamic republic in the modern Middle East.

Although Khamenei’s succession plans are not the topic of discussion for Friday’s election, it could signal the regime’s interest in securing a more hardline, principalist-focused agenda. The conservative and all-powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has united strongly behind Raisi. The ability of the IRGC to swing the election in Raisi’s favor is unclear, however, as Rouhani has warned against their interference.

Rouhani appears to be the more popular candidate, despite conflicting polling. If Raisi were to win and break the two-term pattern of former Iranian presidents, it would not only demonstrate that Iran’s elections are rigged, but also that Iranian leadership values the preservation of political stability in the clergy over the democratic ideals it espouses. In short, it would indicate that Iran is not the democracy it claims to be.

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