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Khamenei’s Blueprint for Iranian Regime’s Next Government

Four-minute read

In the political upheaval following the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of senior Iranian officials, all indicators reveal that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s top priority is to demonstrate stability and ease growing concerns among internal forces and foreign allies. A day before Tehran announced the deaths of its president Ebrahim Raisi and several high-ranking officials, Khamenei, even before Raisi’s body was found, assured the nation, saying, “The Iranian people should not worry; there will be no disruption in the country’s affairs.”

Despite the derailment of his decade-long project, Khamenei refrained from mourning at the caskets of the high-ranking officials. His weeping for Qassem Soleimani on state TV in 2020 resulted in his ridicule and a projection of weakness. This time, he tried to keep his composure and ordered swift preparation for the next presidential election.

Appointing Iran’s Next President

According to Article 131 of the regime’s constitution, “In the event of the death, dismissal, resignation, absence, or illness lasting more than two months of the President, or if the President’s term ends and a new President has not been elected, the First Vice President, with the Leader’s approval, shall assume the President’s duties and responsibilities.” 

On Monday, May 20, Khamenei announced in a message that Raisi’s VP Mohammad Mokhber would take over the executive branch under Article 131 and ordered that the presidential election be held within 50 days.

While governments and think tanks around the world are already speculating and drawing up charts about Iran’s next president, Khamenei has laid out his roadmap. Over the years, the Supreme Leader has gradually discredited all “undesirable elements” through state-affiliated media or influencers exposing corruption documents, initiating legal cases against them or their relatives, and ultimately disqualifying them through the Guardian Council or the Ministry of Interior.

On May 21, 2024, the state media reported that Hadi Tahan Nazif, the Guardian Council spokesman, stated that the new president would serve a full four-year term, not merely the remainder of Raisi’s term. 

Potential Candidates for Iran’s Next President

Media close to Khamenei named potential candidates like Mohammad Mokhber, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani, and Saeed Jalili, a member of the Supreme National Security Council. Despite numerous corruption cases against Ghalibaf and Zakani in media close to marginalized regime factions, these figures have never faced legal or political obstacles to holding high positions within the regime.

The experience of consolidating power seen in the 2019 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections is the strongest indication that the next president will come from Khamenei’s inner circle. In past elections, so-called “reformist candidates” have always been disqualified by the Guardian Council or eliminated at the ballot box.

The so-called “moderates,” including notable figures like former President Hasan Rouhani, former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, former Tehran City Council Chairman Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, and former Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, also stand little chance. Rouhani was disqualified from entering the Assembly of Experts in the March 1 sham election and his open letter protesting the Guardian Council likely reduced his chances further. Zarif, after the leak of a confidential audio tape by Khamenei’s allies before the 2021 election, was too shrewd to risk political disgrace by running for election.

Those who fielded prominent candidates like Ali Larijani in the last election, also saw their candidates disqualified. Although Larijani has served the regime in various key positions, he was sidelined due to Khamenei’s push for Raisi. 

State-run websites note that “former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, given his past and his uncontrollable personality, is unlikely to be approved.” The judiciary has imprisoned many of Ahmadinejad’s advisors and close associates, yet his continual threats to “reveal the system’s secrets” have become a meme in Iran, seemingly granting him a degree of immunity.

Ali Shamkhani, who has held key positions such as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC, Commander of the IRGC Ground Forces, Minister of Defense, and Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, is another potential candidate. However, in recent years, he has been sidelined and disgraced by multiple corruption scandals in state media.

Mohammad Mokhber Dezfouli, who has served as Raisi’s VP since 2021, will act as interim president for 50 days until the presidential election is held. 

Mohsen Rezaei Mirqaed, former IRGC commander and economic vice president in Raisi’s administration, has had ongoing conflicts with Mokhber and has consistently failed in previous presidential elections.

Saeed Jalili, who has proven his loyalty to Khamenei’s foreign policy line, is considered a likely candidate. Regime media speculate that a figure like Saeed Jalili might compete with Ghalibaf and that someone with close ties to Raisi’s administration has the best chance to take over the presidential helm.

During the race for the new speakership, close allies of Khamenei, such as Hamid Rasaee and Ali Akbar Raefi Pour, have harshly criticized the incumbent parliament speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. However, Ghalibaf has proven himself not to be on the blacklist due to his alignment with Khamenei’s policies.

Whether Khamenei will surprise everyone with an unknown figure as he did in 2005, or choose one of the usual suspects, remains uncertain. However, what seems certain is his unwavering strategy for maintaining power.

Khamenei’s Next Strategy

The ten-year project with Raisi has shown that Khamenei sees only one way forward amidst endless internal and external crises: consolidating power. The regime faces significant internal challenges following the uprisings of 2017, 2019, and 2022, along with ongoing labor strikes by teachers, retirees, and workers, coupled with soaring inflation and currency devaluation. Internationally, the regime grapples with delicate issues like the nuclear crisis, and tensions in the Middle East, requiring a strategy to manage and control tensions with the U.S., especially with the upcoming elections in Washington.

Moreover, Tehran views its support for Russia in the Ukraine war, aid to Middle Eastern militias, and backing international terrorism as survival mechanisms. Losing any of these would mean a defensive war and confronting its inherent weaknesses.

Additionally, the regime faces an organized resistance movement and the MEK Resistance Units, which challenge the regime’s apparatus of repression daily and keep the hope of uprising and overthrow alive in society. This Resistance also works internationally to isolate the regime and targets the IRGC as Tehran’s primary arm of repression and terrorism.

However, the main parameter Khamenei considers is the state of his own forces. With each step toward consolidating power, his regime has become smaller and his domestic base weaker. Every killed commander and every additional sanction demoralizes his forces. Thus, any concession or retreat is lethal for Khamenei’s forces, making the path he embarked on with Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian the only viable option for survival. This, inevitably, has set the regime on a collision course with both the Iranian people and the international community, with a downfall seemingly inevitable at the end of this trajectory.