If Iran’s Khamenei must step down, who will replace him?

Is this real? Could this be a change to Iran’s regime for the first time since 1989? And, if so, who would most likely permanently take over for Khamenei?

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, July 2020 (photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, July 2020
(photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
Over the last six years since Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had surgery on his prostate, there have been numerous rounds of speculation about who might succeed the 81-year-old if he dies or becomes too ill to continue ruling.
Then suddenly, on Saturday, an Iranian dissident reporter said that Khamenei may have transferred power to his son, Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei, 51, amid concerns over his declining health.
Is this real? Could this be a change to Iran’s regime for the first time since 1989? And, if so, who would most likely take over after Khamenei permanently?
First, Ali Khamenei has survived many rounds of speculation that his poor health had finished him off – since 2014.
Similarly, there have been many periods of speculation in the past year about North Korea's much younger leader, Kim Jong-un, falling ill, including that he was already dead. But then he would return to the public eye within days or weeks.
Chances are that at the very least Khamenei is sick.
But the lesson from his and Kim's past is that until a supreme leader is dead, he cannot be counted out.
If Khamenei is finally on his way out, Mojtaba is certainly a candidate. He has had significant power within his father's circles and in trying to keep different major power centers within the country divided.
He might even gain the support of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a state within a state in the Islamic Republic.
Mojtaba is viewed as a hardliner when it comes to the West.
However, it is highly unlikely that he would be favored by the country's Assembly of Experts, dominated by ayatollahs with religious expertise. Mojtaba does not have that same kind of expertise.
ACCORDING TO Iran's constitution, the ayatollahs pick the successor, and Khamenei is not a king who can simply pass the role on to his son.
The head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, would probably be the ayatollahs’ favorite.  
Back in August 2019, there was a spike in speculation about Raisi emerging as the leading candidate to succeed Khamenei, Iran expert Raz Zimmt wrote.
Like Mojtaba, Raisi is viewed as a hardliner and there would be major implications for the US and Israel if he succeeds Khamenei as opposed to some more reform-minded candidates.
Zimmt said that since Raisi’s appointment as head of the judiciary in March 2019, the conservative cleric has expanded his efforts to advance changes in the legal system, improve his public image and increase his media exposure.
This would always be important for someone like Raisi, who is on the short-list to succeed the octogenarian leader.
But the new marketing effort, and the fact that Khamenei is overtly supporting these efforts, take on even larger significance when viewed in light of Raisi’s loss to President Hassan Rouhani in the May 2017 presidential elections by a vote of 23 million to 16 million.
Khamenei’s message appears to be clear: he doesn't care that Raisi lost to Rouhani: He wants Raisi as his successor or at least wants to continue to promote him as a leading figure.
Zimmt did note that “it is still too early to assess Raisi’s chances of winning the battle of succession for the leadership of Iran, which will necessarily be affected by the timing of Khamenei’s departure from the political map.”
However, he added that Raisi’s “closeness to the supreme leader; his experience in the judicial authority; his tenure as chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation and the Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad; and his hardliner positions – alongside his increasing efforts to improve his public standing – make him the leading candidate at this stage in the battle of succession.”
RAISI WAS born in December 1960 in the city of Mashhad.
Since the early 1980s, he has filled a series of positions in the judicial system, including Tehran prosecutor, head of the General Inspection Office of the judicial authority, first deputy chief justice and attorney-general of Iran.
In 2016, he was appointed by the Supreme Leader as chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation in Mashhad, which Zimmt wrote is a powerful foundation that controls significant Islamic trusts, a wide range of assets and large budgets.
Besides those posts, Raisi serves as a member of the Expediency Council, and as deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for overseeing the Supreme Leader’s activity, appointing his successor, and even potentially removing him from office if he is found unfit to continue to serve.
Shortly after he became head of the judiciary, Raisi announced changes, including achieving greater efficiency.
Zimmt said that Raisi placed the war on corruption high on his agenda.
For example, he dismissed dozens of judges who were accused of involvement in corruption.
In addition, Raisi announced he was reducing how many bank accounts he had and would issue annual reports.
This seemed to be an attempt to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Sadeq Larijani, who allegedly held more than 60 bank accounts with funds from citizens who had cases in the courts, wrote Zimmt.
Also, Raisi worked to increase his media exposure and improve his public image, particularly following his election loss to Rouhani.
He had appeared “as a dull candidate lacking charisma, who had difficulty compensating for his lack of political experience,” said Zimmt.
IN JUNE 2019, Raisi published an unusual post on his Instagram account, calling on Iranians to contact him through his personal social media accounts to suggest necessary improvements to the judicial system.
Zimmt wrote that, “this initiative was warmly received, particularly by the pro-reform media, which expressed the hope that this would lead to a re-examination of the current policy of blocking social networks, and would strengthen the public’s trust in the judicial system.
Likewise, in the same month, the Iranian media published pictures showing Raisi traveling to work on Tehran’s metro, apparently in order to strengthen his image as leading a simple and modest lifestyle. He granted an extensive media interview during Judiciary Week.
Raisi has had problems with the reformist camp of Iranians due to his involvement in the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988, Zimmt said.
President Rouhani himself hinted at Raisi’s past, the Iran expert noted, when he stated in one of his election speeches that Iranian citizens no longer want someone who spent 38 years imprisoning and executing them.
To counter this, Zimmt said that Raisi has issued a number of statements about improving the status of women in the country.
Like Khamenei, Raisi has been a public skeptic of the 2015 nuclear deal and is strongly allied with the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
OTHER NAMES that have been raised alongside Raisi and Mojtaba include Rouhani and Raisi's predecessor running the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani.
Though a firm member of the establishment, Rouhani is viewed as more open to the West than Khamenei or Raisi and as more likely to try to defuse crises and confrontations rather than exacerbate them.
But Rouhani has lost face over the last two years since the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal. He would have a better chance if Khamenei recovers and Rouhani succeeds at a new deal with the incoming Biden administration.
Zimmt wrote in 2019 that a member of the Assembly of Experts, senior cleric Mohsen Araki, confirmed in an interview to the Fars news agency that a three-member committee holds a secret list of a number of potential candidates to succeed Khamenei should the need suddenly arise to replace the aging leader after his 30-year rule.
This list could also include dark horse candidates from the ayatollahs or from the IRGC.
So part of the question would be whether Iran continues to be primarily ruled by clerics, or whether the IRGC security apparatus does a sort of coup, and moves the country into a true police-state era.
Of course, Khamenei may nix all the rumors in the coming days or weeks, but at age 81, the speculation will continue.