Cover: The Next Supreme Leader

The Next Supreme Leader

Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Published Feb 21, 2011

by Alireza Nader, David E. Thaler, S. R. Bohandy


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المرشد الأعلى المقبل: الخلافة في جمهورية إيران الإسلامية

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As the commander in chief and highest political authority in Iran, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 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, the outcome of which was determined 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: Khamenei and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As Khamenei ages and rumors of his ill health intensify, U.S. policymakers and analysts need to consider the various scenarios for succession. The eventual outcome — what the office of the Supreme Leader looks like in Khamenei's wake — will determine the Islamic Republic's direction. The research documented in this monograph 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 trends. It situates all of this within the context of the June 2009 election. Because the context in which succession would occur becomes more uncertain the further into the future one looks, the authors focus on the near term — i.e., a succession that would take place within the next two to three years. However, the authors also speculate about the changes that are likely to ensue in the longer term if Khamenei remains Supreme Leader for the next ten years or more. In light of the 2009 election, a status quo scenario seems most likely in the near term, and an absolutist scenario is a close second. The likelihood of longer-term succession scenarios is uncertain.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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