• 19 November 2009
  • Posted By Matt Sugrue
  • Events in Iran, Uncategorized

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.

Posted By Matt Sugrue

    7 Responses to “What Could Come after the Last Supreme Leader?”

  1. Masoud says:

    IRGC aside, I think the biggest obstacle in bringing about such a radical change to the structure of the IRI is the Assembly of Experts, the body that is (in theory) responsible for selecting the next leader and that would also have to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow a change in going from having a Supreme Leader to a Supreme Council of 3+ clerics.

    During the last 20 years, the body has been made essentially symbolic, as the majority of the 86 ‘experts’ have been replaced with Khamenei-loyalists. Hence Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly, not being able to exert as much pressure on Khamenei as he would be able to otherwise. The threat of “impeachment” (or removal, or whatever you want to call it) is simply not there, even if it is on paper in the increasingly irrelevant constitution. If Khamenei were to pass away anytime soon, I can’t see Rafsanjani being able to convince his more conservative colleagues in the Assembly to support such a change.

    So if the position of Rahbar is going to be abolished — a remote possibility at this point — I think first the Assembly will have to resist such a change before it is demanded by the people…and perhaps by force. If it gets past that point, either the Assembly agrees to abolishing the post, or it will resist.

    Either way, I think it would be only then that the IRGC’s recalcitrance would enter the equation. Either they reject the Assembly’s decision for reform and preserve the status quo — and no doubt, they would resist — or they deploy to enforce what would be an obviously unpopular decision by the Assembly of Experts to maintain the post of a single (read: dictatorial) Rahbar. Either way, the role of the Assembly would seem to come first in what would be a bifurcated process.

  2. monica ringer says:

    who, if i may ask, is the author of this very interesting artice? although provocative, i would have to agree with Masoud that the dissolution of velayat-e faqih has more stages and institutional roadblocks than simply the power of clerical opposition. one could imagine, however, keeping the institution, yet choosing a more moderate marja to enable the position to become less powerful vis-a-vis the parliament.

  3. Someone says:

    @ monica:

    I’m not sure what the practical prospects are for such a change to the constitution, but as I understand Khamenei himself couldn’t have become SL without the constitutional amendment that allowed non-marjas to take the position. Why not another amendement now?

    As for a more moderate marja, I fear it doesn’t matter who you choose to take the SL position. It’s far too much power for one man. Khamenei was once a moderate cleric. Knowledgeable about music, familiar with western thought (having spent time in the Shah’s prisons with leftist intellectuals). Look at him now.

    Even Khomeini had become paranoid and was seeing enemies everywhere by the end of his rule. Just look at his letter to Montazeri (http://www.baabeilm.org/khomeini/montezari.pdf), written in response to Montazeri’s criticism of the mass execution of political prisoners. Clearly he’d lost it at this point.

  4. Mike says:

    Iran is a run by negotiations among different groups and no one is in total control. This can be seen during the present nuclear negotiations when no group would allow any other group take credit for a settlement with the outside world.

    We can expect a very long period when the Expediency council, in the text below called Exigency Council, will run the show. I do not think that they really have to change the constitution for that.

    My guess is that the decision process in IRI will be deadlocked. Actually, I think that all of the groups that are running the show at present, would approve an international opening of Iran to the outside world, but they can not admit it to the other groups. The one that takes the first step will be eaten alive by the other groups. It is a similar problem with North Korea, they know that they have to change, but they do not dare to face possible consequences of the changes.

    They should study a well known problem in Game Theory called “The prisoners Dilemma”.

    Click on my name for a link to the IRI constitution:

    Article 111 [Leadership Council]
    (1) Whenever the Leader becomes incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties, or loses one of the qualifications mentioned in Articles 5 and 109, or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the qualifications initially, he will be dismissed. The authority of determination in this matter is vested with the experts specified in Article 108.
    (2) In the event of the death, or resignation or dismissal of the Leader, the experts shall take steps within the shortest possible time for the appointment of the new Leader. Until the appointment of the new Leader, a council consisting of the President, head of the judiciary power, and a religious men from the Guardian Council, upon the decision of the Nation’s Exigency Council, shall temporarily take over all the duties of the Leader. In the event that, during this period, any one of them is unable to fulfil his duties for whatsoever reason, another person, upon the decision of majority of religious men in the Nation’s Exigency Council shall be elected in his place.
    (3) This council shall take action in respect of items 1, 3, 5, and 10, and sections d, e and f of item 6 of Article 110, upon the decision of three-fourths of the members of the Nation’s Exigency Council.
    (4) Whenever the leader becomes temporarily unable to perform the duties of leadership owing to his illness or any other incident, then during this period, the council mentioned in this article shall assume his duties.

  5. Don Cox says:

    A Fascist-miltary dictatorship seems to be the most likely future for Iran. Something like the military dictatorships which ruled Greece or Argentina for a few years in the 20 C.

    Probably such a dictatorship would lead Iran into a major war. There would certainly be a massacre of opponents.

    The main reason for pessimism is that so many of those who might fight to oppose Fascism are already abroad.

    (By Fascism, I mean a policy of using violence as the first solution to problems.)

  6. Ali says:


    Very interesting analysis. Keep up the good work.

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May 14, 2012
Larry Page
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Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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