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November 19, 2009

What Could Come after the Last Supreme Leader?

A recent article published on the Newsweek website discusses the widespread discontent amongst Iran’s religious scholars with the position of Supreme Leader, and suggests that the position itself is in danger of being abolished after Ayatollah Khamenei’s death. According to the author,

the religious establishment—including those who helped create the system—plainly sees the institution [Supreme Leader] as bankrupt. As the religious and political crisis unfolds, it is becoming clearer that the central problem, among many, lies with Khamenei and his absolute power as Supreme Leader. Why would they want another serving?

However, there is at least one problem with the decision to get rid of the office of Supreme Leader that should be considered. That problem is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Currently, the IRGC reports directly to the Supreme Leader.
The Basij militias and the nuclear program are under IRGC command. Therefore, the IRGC represents a massive number of regular and irregular security forces, and the soldiers who are members of the Guard Corps are more highly trained and outfitted than the regular army.
Over the years, the IRGC has expanded beyond its original mandate. The organization is now involved in a wide array of enterprises, such as: “laser eye-surgery clinics, manufactures cars, builds roads and bridges, develops gas and oil fields and controls black-market smuggling.” In addition, there is evidence that the organization is making a move into media and news. The IRGC is becoming a dangerously independent actor in Iran’s political and social spheres.
The rise of the IRGC has not gone unnoticed in Iran. According to the Newsweek article, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, a frequent critic of Khamenei, recently stated “What we have is a military velayat, not a [religious] velayat.” This was in response to the IRGC crack down on Iranian citizens protesting after the June election.
A question comes to mind, what would happen if the position of Supreme Leader is actually abolished. To which person or organization, will the IRGC declare their allegiance, or will the IRGC declare its allegiance to itself? If the IRGC’s link to the Islamic Republic, which is the office of Supreme Leader, is severed what would hold the organization from assuming full and open control of Iran? In fact, the commanders may even decide that they are required to do so because their mission is to protect the leaders of the Islamic Revolution.
The IRGC would also have an economic incentive to assume control of the government. There would not be any guarantee that whichever person or government body they were placed under would allow them to continue their forays into non-military interests. The combination of economic and ideological motivations could certainly convince the Guard’s leadership that they would be far better off ruling the country than risking an uncertain future.
This entire line of reasoning may seem alarmist and consisting of far too much conjecture, but there is concern amongst Khamenei’s supporters. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, a confidant of Khamenei, had to reassure the IRGC leadership that the position of Supreme Leader is secure;

That’s like [the] chairman of the Democratic party reassuring people that the presidency has a future. According to Persian state-run news reports, Mesbah-Yazdi said, “Velayat-e faqih is like the column that keeps the tent of Islam standing. In an Islamic state, everything derives its legitimacy from the velayatAny movement weakening the velayat is equal to weakening Islam and doing a satanic deed…Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards assured a gathering of adherents in universities that the leader could never be removed from power. “In the Islamic system, the office and legitimacy of the Supreme Leader comes from God, the Prophet and the Shiite Imams, and it is not the people who give legitimacy to the Supreme Leader and are able to remove him when they want,” said Mojtaba Zolnour, a little-known Khamenei representative.

The dangers of removing the office of Supreme Leader, at least as I see it, is that the government will transform from a authoritarian theocracy to a military dictatorship. Which would be worse for the Iranian people is a matter of degrees.

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