By Arash Farid, Tehran (source: Mianeh)
The issue of who will eventually replace Iran's Supreme Leader first began being discussed two years ago, when there was a flurry of rumors that the incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Hossein Khamenei, was seriously ill, and it remains a live and highly sensitive issue.
Iran's leaders were quick to counter the story, which appeared in various articles and web postings around January 2007.
The following month, Ayatollah Khamenei himself alluded to the rumors. "The enemies of the Islamic government invent rumors about people's death and illness in order to damage the morale of the Iranian people," he told a gathering of military servicemen. "What they fail to understand is that it's a nation they are confronting, not a single individual."
Two years on, that period of intense speculation has faded. Yet regardless of the Supreme Leader's current state of health, another issue raised at the time remains as relevant as ever. How, in principle, will the post of Supreme Leader be filled in future? Are there any likely candidates for this central role?
More controversially, is it possible - as some in Iran are now suggesting - that the powers currently vested in one man could somehow be re-assigned to a collective decision-making body?
Earlier this month, the latter suggestion was tackled head on by Justice Minister Gholam-Hossein Elham, who also acts as spokesman for the government.
"There are some individuals who are busily conspiring to introduce a 'leadership council' against the [Supreme] Leader. What are they up to? They claim to be loyal to the Leader while trying to uproot [the principle of] velayat-e faqih. There is a conspiracy taking place that you need to be aware of."
Elham was referring to remarks by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who is a cleric himself by questioning the current interpretation of the constitutional principle of "velayat-e faqih", which lies at the heart of Islamic rule in Iran.
Set out by the post-revolutionary Iran's first leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the concept of velayat-e faqih - which translates rather opaquely as "the guardianship of the jurisprudent" - means that the work of government should be overseen and guided by expert practitioners of Shia law. In practice, the function of velayat-e faqih was vested in the person of Khomeini himself. When he died in 1989, the post of Supreme Leader and consequently the role of embodying velayat-e faqih passed to Khamenei.
Velayat-e faqih is regarded as an immutable principle, and conservatives regard any hint of criticism of the current one-man arrangement as close to treasonous.
Yet other politicians have begun questioning that interpretation, among them Rafsanjani, who holds two key positions as chair of both the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts. The latter body is particularly important as it is charged with electing a new Supreme Leader on the death or resignation of the incumbent.
At a recent conference on contemporary methods of "ijtihad", or interpreting Islamic law, Rafsanjani suggested that the rule of the jurist - in other words one man - should be replaced by a council of jurists.
"We cannot control society using narratives from 1,400 years ago," he said. "If we want a society that is ruled by Islam, we need to take an innovative approach to ijtihad so as to make it compatible with the society we now have."
Rafsanjani said the political, economic and social issues facing government and society were now too diverse and numerous for one individual to be able to issue rulings on them based on his personal reading of Islamic texts. Instead, he said, the study of Islamic law needed to be diversified so that specialized jurists emerged who restricted their rulings to their particular area of knowledge.
While Rafsanjani did not directly question the need for a Supreme Leader, his proposal does envisage radical change. It would delegate the absolute authority to issue rulings to a wider council which could, at the very least, offer independent opinions on matters of Islamic law, or question decisions made by the Supreme Leader.
It is little wonder that supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are so angry. They suspect Rafsanjani is trying to pave the way for a situation where after Khamenei's death, the Supreme Leader's influence and powers would be diluted.
According to Karim Sadjadpour, an academic at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the "council of jurists" might even replace the role of Supreme Leader altogether.
"Precisely because there are no obvious successors to Khamenei, the prospect of the Supreme Leadership being replaced by a shura (consultative) council is discussed with increased frequency," Sadjadpour wrote in a study of Khamenei published last year. "The idea is not new and was considered after Khomeini's death, since many believed the Supreme Leadership was 'a robe designed only for Khomeini'."
Sadjadpour noted that when he was Iranian president - a post he held from 1981 until Khomeini's death in 1979 - Khamenei once said that the Supreme Leader could never be replaced by one individual, and the role would probably pass to a council of three or five religious leaders.
Under the Iranian constitution, if the Supreme Leader dies, resigns or is removed, a council consisting of the president, the head of the judiciary and a member of the Guardian Council takes over temporarily until the Assembly of Experts selects a new leader. But this is only an interim arrangement, and is clearly not what Rafsanjani is proposing. Instead, the council he has in mind would require a change to the constitution.
The constitution has been revised before with regard to the role of Supreme Leader. Shortly before Khomeini died, he ordered a change to the wording so that the Supreme Leader was no longer required to be a "marja", in other words a senior cleric enjoying sufficient respect to be a source of judgements on matters of Islamic law. At the time, Khamenei had not yet attained the rank of Ayatollah, still less that of Grand Ayatollah, the title accorded to a marja. Yet Khomeini's proposal, approved by a referendum after his death, opened the way for him to become Supreme Leader.
Another example from the Eighties shows how difficult if would be for the Assembly of Experts to nominate a successor while the Supreme Leader is still in place.
When Khomeini made it known he wanted Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri to succeed him, his choice was formally ratified by the Assembly of Experts. However, Montazeri later fell out with the Supreme Leader and in 1989 he was demoted and disqualified as heir-designate. The assembly is unlikely to want a repetition of this kind of controversy.
The question of the succession is a taboo subject in Iran, and the Assembly of Experts meets behind closed doors.
As Sadjadpour noted in his study, Khamenei's time in office has shown, somewhat ironically, that the Supreme Leader does not have to be a "popular, charismatic" figure for Islamic rule to survive, nor will the system collapse on his death.
This view appears to be a fair reflection of the current situation. Khamenei has neither the theological credentials nor the personal charisma of his predecessor, yet he has remained in charge for the last two decades. It follows that his disappearance from the scene would not in itself plunge Iran into political turmoil.
Arash Farid is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Tehran.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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