Whose Turban Is in Iran’s Ring, Post-Raisi?

By Timothy Furnish Published on May 24, 2024

This past Sunday, Iran’s president and foreign minister were killed in a helicopter crash — probably due more to the fact that the aircraft was antiquated than Mossad scheming. So chief executive Ebrahim Raisi — whose nickname was “The Butcher of Tehran” — was sent off to meet his just reward, which is likely to be much hotter and less pleasant than he was led to believe.

But what does his death mean for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Middle East, and American foreign policy?

Goodbye to the Muslim Thanos

First: The world is a better place without Raisi, who as the Islamic Revolution’s judge and jury had sent masses of people to their executioners. Such pious viciousness endeared him to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. Raisi was even deemed to be his likely successor. And why not? Both reflected what the Islamic Messiah — the returned Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi — would be like.

Second, no matter who is (s)elected to be Iran’s next president, its policies won’t change much — mainly because the Supreme Leader actually controls the country, but also because anyone who makes it into Tehran’s halls of power has already shown his dedication to the regime’s mantra, as I wrote in these pages previously:

Since 1979, Iran has billed itself as the leader of the globe’s huddled masses. This includes non-Muslims. The Islamic Republic’s constitution was conceived in anti-Americanism and dedicated to the proposition of Western oppression. Modern Iranian political thought draws on Twelver Shi’ite victimology and eschatology. The Twelvers cite examples of Sunni and Western (Christian) persecution. The Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi will avenge the Shi’ites. He will also redistribute wealth. (Think Bernie Sanders in a turban.) This Islamic liberation theology plays well in many places. It’s why Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez were such amigos a few years back. Iran since has built on that personal relationship to connect with other Latin American countries. The ayatollahs have also increased their influence in Africa. On both continents the Islamic Republic carries the torch of the old “Non-Aligned Movement.” Thus, the IRI hopes to win friends and influence fellow “oppressed” peoples. These will all live happily ever after once the Mahdi returns and humbles the “arrogant powers.” The Islamic Republic clearly has delusions of grandeur.

The Nine Likely Iranian Presidential Candidates

The next president will be zealously examined for devotion to this agenda — even more than in the past because Khameini is in his mid-80s and the IRI presidency is the logical stepping stone to succeeding the Supreme Leader. In light of that, which Iranians might have a shot at the office, via vetting by the Assembly of Experts and the actual election? I’ve come up with a list of nine possible candidates.

Not included is the acting president, Mohammed Mokhber. Why? Because he’s neither an ayatollah nor a lower-ranking hujjatollah. And one of these clerical ranks will be required of the aspiring Supreme Leader. Mokhber, then, is just a place-holder.

Six Dark Horses

A very long shot is Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the (in)famous founder of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He’s young (51), a hujjatollah and, of course, carries that famous name. But he has been critical of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ political role and has been barred from running for office in the past. He’s charismatic and well-connected, but mercurial.

Less problematic, but also less impressive, is Hujjatollah Asgar Dirbaz, a solid but undistinguished member of the Assembly of Experts (which elects the Supreme Leader).

Muslims praying inside the Jamkaran Mosque–where the Twelfth Imam will allegedly reappear one day–in Qom, Iran.

Ayatollah Lotfallah Dezkham, also on the Assembly, has the clerical chops and expresses the right views on Israel (as in “get rid of it”). But he lacks connections in Tehran. So he’s very much an outsider, politically.

Hujjatollah Ahmad Moballeghi is a renowned Shi`a scholar and head of the Islamic Studies Center in Qom. He’s on the Assembly of Experts but doesn’t have a great deal of political experience.

Sadeq Larijani is an extremely well-connected hojjatollah. His brother, Ali, is the former Speaker of the Majlis (Parliament). He is the current head of the Expediency Discernment Council, which advises the Supreme Leader. Larijani has also served as the chief justice and is very simpatico with Khameini’s views. He’s also been sanctioned by the US and the European Union, and that negative attention comprises two feathers in his regime turban.

Ayatollah Reza Ramezani Gilani is qualified. He led the Shi`i Muslim communities in Austria and Germany, and later led the Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly, Iran’s far-reaching religious propaganda organization. Gilani would be a good choice if the IRI wants to refocus its resources on peaceful ideological propagation — which doesn’t appear likely right now.

The Top Three Possibilities

Ahmad Khatami is not an ayatollah but his family claims descent from Islam’s founder, Muhammad. He has very little foreign experience, but makes up for that with solid regime credentials. Khatami blasted Pope Benedict XVI for his 2006 Regensburg address criticizing Islam. He has also said that Khomeini’s fatwa of death against Salman Rushdie remains in effect. And Khatami is a regular critic of Iranian protestors, accusing them of “warring against Allah.”

Ayatollah Mohsen Araki is an intriguing figure. He’s a bit older than the others, at 67. But his experience is unique. A member of both the Assembly of Experts and the Supreme Leader’s advisory council, Araki was born in Iraq. He’s thus Arabic, as well as Farsi and English. He was the head of the Islamic Centre of England, where I met him in 2004 when presenting a conference paper. Araki is more urbane than other possible candidates, and able to reach out directly to the Arab world and the West. But he’s not exactly moderate, having called for the death penalty for protestors.

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The leading contender for the Iranian presidency is Mojtaba Khameini, Supreme Leader Khameini’s son. Besides bloodline, his credentials are nearly impeccable. He’s only 54, fought in the war against Iraq, and headed up the Basij domestic thugs who regularly crush domestic dissent. The junior Khameini doesn’t have ayatollah rank, but that can always be papered over. (His father didn’t have that credential when he was made Supreme Leader.)

Who Might Change Course?

Khameini, Araki, and Khatami have the best shots at the office, depending on which one is best consolidating his power at this moment.

If one of these three becomes Supreme Leader, might Tehran’s ship of state change course? Perhaps — most notably under Araki, whose experience outside Iran would seem to make him more open to normalizing relations with the US (if IRGC opposition to that could be overcome, that is). Khameini also might be willing to alter Iran’s policies on the margins, if only to distinguish himself from his father. Khatami would likely just continue along current lines.

But in the short term, we shouldn’t expect any sea changes in Iran, no matter who replaces Raisi. The Islamic Republic will continue to try to degrade Israel, undermine Saudi Arabia, vex the US, and grab the mantle of Islam’s global champion. Also, no matter who’s at the political helm, he will push for the development of nuclear weapons.

God willing, he won’t be zealous enough to actually use them.


Timothy Furnish holds a doctoral degree in Islamic, world and African history from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor, and occasional media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults with The Stream on matters of international security.

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