Succession to Iran's Supreme Leader Will Be Critical Juncture in Iran's Future and U.S.-Iranian Relations

For Release

February 21, 2011

Recent events in Egypt and Tunisia underscore the importance of examining potential leadership succession in key countries prior to when they occur, in part to help maximize the United States' ability to influence rapidly evolving events.

A new RAND Corporation study systematically examines several different succession scenarios for Iran's supreme leader that could take place in the near future. Based on three key factors currently shaping succession, if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei passes from the scene within the next few years, his successor would be someone who would likely maintain the status quo.

An absolute dictator as supreme leader and the abolition of the Islamic Republic are other possible, but less likely, scenarios that could transpire if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies, steps down or otherwise leaves his post, according to the study. Because the factors affecting succession could change over time, predicting the succession becomes more difficult over the long term.

"Currently, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have tremendous power, and will be in a good position to shape succession in the near future," said Alireza Nader, lead author of the study and an international policy analyst with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "However, other factors, such as popular dissatisfaction with the regime, could curtail the Guards' role in determining succession."

As the commander-in-chief and highest political authority in Iran, Khamenei, 71, who has been supreme leader since June of 1989, has played a critical role in the direction of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This has never been more true than during the tumultuous 2009 presidential elections, with the outcome determined largely by Khamenei's decisive support of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Only two men have held the position of supreme leader since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979. As Khamenei ages and rumors of poor health intensify, U.S. policymakers and analysts need to consider the various scenarios for succession. The next supreme leader will largely determine the Islamic Republic's direction.

The RAND study identifies three key factors that will shape succession of the next supreme leader, and outlines five alternative scenarios for the post-Khamenei era. For each of the factors, it provides a set of indicators that observers can use to assess the most important current trends shaping succession in the next few years. The study also considers what changes might occur if Khamenei's term lasts another 10 years or more, although succession direction in the distant future is harder to gauge.

The three factors that will have a decisive influence on the nature of the next supreme leader include: the factions and personalities in positions of power and influence; the prevailing concept of the rule of the supreme jurisprudent, or velayat-e faghih; and the decisions and actions of Khamenei's personal network, including the Revolutionary Guards.

Other potential influences include the anti-Ahmadinejad Green Movement, the women's rights movement, Iran's declining economy and Iranian relations with the United States.

The five possible succession scenarios—along with the conditions that could lead to them—are:

  • Status quo—where Khamenei is followed by a leader like himself, possibly someone he hand-picks
  • "Absolutist"—an absolute dictator with strong religious and political credentials supported by a cult of personality
  • "Democratic"—a reformist leader who is more accountable to the republican institutions and the electorate than Khamenei
  • Leadership council—an executive leadership group that replaces a single leader
  • Abolition—the demise of the Supreme Leader position in favor of republicanism.

If Khamenei dies or is otherwise replaced in the next few years, Nader said it is likely the next leader will be someone very much like him, or possibly an absolute ruler who, unlike Khamenei, completely ignores or even dissolves Iran's elected institutions. The 2009 election reinforced the power of Khamenei's personal network and the principlist (fundamentalist) hard-liners, while weakening the reformists and Iran's elected institutions. However, the study also notes that Khamenei's decisions during the election diminished his legitimacy and the institution of supreme leader, which could accelerate the Islamic Republic's demise.

The study, "The Next Supreme Leader: Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran," can be found at Other authors include David E. Thaler and S.R. Bohandy.

Research for the study was sponsored by the Office of Secretary of Defense and was conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally-funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of defense, the Joint Staff, the unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence Community.

About the RAND Corporation

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