Three Paths for Iran After Khamenei

The age and deteriorating health of Ayatollah Khamenei breed speculation about the future of Iran after the passing of the Supreme Leader. Valdai Club experts Vladimir Sazhin and Alexander Maryasov talked about what to expect of Iran’s future after this happens.

“Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei is ill and it has already been said several times that he is almost dying. Even in Iran, various options for the development of the Islamic Republic after the passing of Ayatollah Khamenei are being discussed. There are several options,” Vladimir Sazhin, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with

According to Sazhin, the first option is collective governance: three to five religious figures who would assume the position of the Supreme Leader, forming a kind of "politburo." The second option is to reduce the powers of the Supreme Leader to spiritual leadership, with a ceremonial role in all other respects, by analogy with the British monarch.

There is one more option: everything would remain as is, without any changes. However, in this case, much would depend on the political views of the successor, who would be selected by the Council of Experts.

“In the last elections to the Council in 2016, which took place almost in conjunction with the parliamentary elections, this organization, firstly, became much younger, and, secondly, began to include people of centrist and even reformist views. However, it is not worth waiting for a liberal reformer to stand at the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran to expect this kind of radical or liberal reform from this council,” he added.

According to Alexander Maryasov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Russia to Iran (2001-2005), this reflects the overall political trend of Iran. “The generation of the comrades -revolutionaries and followers of Ayatollah Khomeini who created and ensured the successful functioning of the theocratic and highly ideologized state is gradually departing the political stage of Iran,” Maryasov said.

However, according to Maryasov, judicial and law enforcement structures created in Iran by the ruling clergy will continue to reign supreme the country, as would the system of checks and balances established by the constitution and political institutions. Sazhin echoed Maryasov’s views, pointing out that the next Supreme Leader of Iran would also be restrained by the regional geopolitical situation.

“I'm not sure that policy would change dramatically in one direction or another. There may be nuances, a more reformist or conservative direction, but the new leader, no matter which group he is in, no matter what his views, will not take drastic steps because Iran is a serious country that has weight in the global economy and in terms of human resources, it has 80 million people. Therefore, there are many issues that would not allow one to radically change the general line of the Islamic Republic of Iran, no matter who becomes the next Supreme Leader,” Sazhin said.

Sazhin also noted that Iran is still going through a vicious political struggle between the relatively liberal reformers and the conservative radicals who dream of returning the country to what it was in the first post-revolutionary years. One of the victims of this struggle was President Hassan Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoun, who was arrested on suspicion of financial crimes. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), one of the most powerful institutions in Iran in terms of political, military, ideological and economic power, has also stood up against Rouhani.

According to Maryasov, this however does not mean that forces interested in changes, will attempt to create political upheaval. “Changes in the region and the world as a whole will have a great impact on the political course of Iran. Increasing the pressure, economic sanctions and military threats will contribute to the preservation of the Iranian regime, the strengthening of the ideology of Iran as a ‘besieged fortress’. And, on the contrary, eliminating the threats of a political, economic and military nature will create conditions for the development and progress of democracy in the country,” Maryasov concluded.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.