After the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, loyal supporters of Ruhollah Khomeini believed that he would advance the nation, uphold the “true” religious standards of Islam, and successfully transform the country into a democracy. While the public and his general supporters were preoccupied in demonizing the previous Shah of Iran, Khomeini focused on centralizing the government for his own benefit. Civil unrest in Iran can be traced back to the first referendum of the country in 1989, as attempts to establish a democratic republic were eliminated by Khomeini when he used his newfound fame and power to centralize politics and suppress any opponent. While the centralization of power initially benefited Khomeini, the flaws of his views and style of government became apparent as Iran searched for his successor in 1989. A push for liberalization, coupled with traditional as well as clerical views of government, led to not only heated clashes but also a reinterpretation of the constitution in the same year. Such a referendum led to the criteria for the position of Supreme Leader to be simplified, as it became clear that there was no candidate that met everyone’s high standards. With the uncertainty of procedure of electing a new Supreme Leader, having different competing factions applying pressure, and no clear successor for the position, Iran must be prepared to elect a new leader to succeed the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to avoid a weakening of the government and a power vacuum.
During the turbulent time of electing a new Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini chose Ali Khamenei to be his successor. His administration has been marked by the suppression of journalists, the privatization of certain businesses, election protests, and past allegations of amassing wealth through corruption. Regardless of his popularity, there is general concern over his ability to rule. Recent reports of his degrading health and political pressure stemming from crippling economic sanctions lead many to wonder who will succeed the current Supreme Leader. The “Rubber-Stamp” bodies of the Government, like the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council, are failing the people they supposedly represent. There are supposed to be democratic and follow the procedures established by the constitution, yet, they are indirectly controlled by the Supreme Leader and allow any of his decrees to be enforced. Gridlock, disagreement, and general tension continue to arise in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like it or not, regime change is soon to occur. The Iranian Government must ensure a smooth transition, as the soon to be vacant position could cause a power-vacuum that would severely weaken Iran.
There is a clear divide between Iran’s present and its past. While the clerics continue to preach that the Government is pious and zealous in practice, it’s clear that this is no longer the case. The relaxing criteria of becoming the Supreme Leader was just the beginning of the changes Iran made to address certain flaws in its system. Yet in the status quo, whether it be the lack of division of power, the centralized nature of the government, or how political bodies are established as a facade, it becomes clear that the government of Iran is far from being democratic. In 1989, the succession process conducted by Khomeini and the Assembly of Experts was not democratic at all. This was reflected in how the initially proposed successor, Hussein-Ali Montazeri, was ousted for preaching the liberation of Iran. Eventually, Ali Khamenei was elected as Supreme Leader despite not being an Ayatollah. To clarify, it was the removal of the requirement of being a “Marja” (Grand Ayatollah) that aided Khamenei. The previous requirements were that a candidate should have extensive clerical as well as political experience, yet — as it was clear at that time — they were no longer realistic. The lack of credentials would have been a serious Achilles Heel that the public could have utilized to pressure the government, but the media was controlled by the state, and Khamenei began to be referred as the supreme political and religious ruler. Khamenei was propped up to look like the ideal candidate for the position; it was said that his credentials perfectly matched the position, but in reality, he was far from the original standards and the government feared that the public would know and use such a piece of information.
The fact that certain political parties are banned from participating in elections is a clear indication that Khamenei is seeking to preserve his precarious hold on power. Take, for example, the arrest of Mehdi Karroubi, who publicly released documents stating his view of how corrupt Khamenei has become. As a result, Khamenei placed him under house arrest since 2011, and the situation hasn’t improved since. The public view of Khamenei further declined in 2014, when he underwent prostate surgery. While public officials claimed it was a “routine operation,” Western Intelligence reports state that Khamenei has prostate cancer. As for major figures that have religious and political experience and are believed to be clear candidates for succession, it seems unlikely that they will rise to the occasion: Former Iranian President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, sadly died two years ago and former Expediency Council Chairman and Judiciary chief, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, suffers from brain cancer. Speculation of power structures, Khamenei’s succession, and the dynamics themselves have shifted tremendously since he first was elected to office. For example, The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has become more powerful and now owns around 20 percent of the Iranian economy. In the 1980s, it was mainly the Supreme Leader and his close allies that had control. Now, it seems as if power structures will be shaken by the foreseeable death of Khamenei.
The Iranian people are tired of 40 years of heavy fluctuations in their economic status; such unrest is translating toward political pressure on the current Supreme Leader. Labor unrest is growing and there seems to be no end to the political-theocratic debate that plagues the Iranian government. This regime seems to rely on the bayonet and oil, as its survival has depended mainly on their oil revenue and how much they can repress the people without any consequential backlash. While Rouhani, the current President of Iran, calls for direct voting of the people to end political gridlock and public tension over legislation — Article 59 of the Constitution calls for public voting in certain cases — it isn’t enough to curb the influence that Supreme Leader has, and the dissatisfaction the people have. There are simply too many competing interests and no clear framework as to how to elect a Supreme Leader without the biased influence of the preceding ruler. While — constitutionally — the Assembly of Experts is supposed to elect the leader, the Assembly was bypassed and ignored in 1989; taking the history of the government into consideration, it will most likely occur again. Currently, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Ebrahim Raisi, and Mojtaba Khamenei are “clear” favorites to be elected, yet, the basis of their likability is based solely on speculation and rumors, as the succession of Khamenei is a taboo topic for officials to freely talk about. While there has been discussion of the succession of Khamenei, it has not been transparent or accessible to the people of Iran. There is pressure to stabilize the status quo, as the protests that began in December of 2017 are ongoing. These protests reflect the lack of current leadership and suggest that an imminent succession crisis will likely worsen the state of affairs.
The facade of democracy in the Iranian government continues to worry many political and foreign policy experts, as they are aware of the ongoing volatility in Iran. While the government continues to reassert its authority by cracking down on the media, and people and their rights, we can see its inherent dysfunctionality. The “Rubber-Stamp” bodies of the executive and legislative branch can no longer continue to allow gridlock to occur over legislation, and at the same time be willing to accept anything that is imposed by the inner circle of the Supreme Leader. Unrest continues and the economic performance of Iran is far from good. With no indications of a succession plan for the position of Supreme Leader, a disregard for precedence, and the unavoidable influence of Khamenei, it may well be another situation where Iran will be scrambling to elect a leader as it was in 1989. The Iranian people have unfortunately suffered greatly from this regime, and with continuous gridlock and a bleak future, it’s almost certain that it will continue.