Of the many challenges that Iran has faced over the 40 years since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah and established the Islamic Republic, one was dead on arrival: the impossible fight against time by the generation who fought the revolution. Four decades later, of that circle of combatant clergy fewer and fewer members are still alive and in power.
When ayatollah Khomeini, the most prominent figure of the revolution and first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, died ten years later in 1989, serious uncertainties hung over the future of the Republic. It nonetheless managed to survive, underpinned by a solid constitution and a complex mechanism of elective and appointed powers. After Khomeini’s death, the reins of power long remained in the hands of key personalities of that first generation of revolutionaries. The leadership has since been held by Ali Khamenei, one of the members of Khomeini’s Revolutionary Council set up in 1979 to oversee the revolution. The Expediency Council, the institution created by Khomeini in 1988 to advise the Supreme Leader and solve the disputes between the Parliament and the Guardian Council, was chaired for 28 years by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another member of the Revolutionary Council, president from 1989 to 1997, and one of the most influential and closest persons to Khomeini. Similarly, also the Judiciary and the Guardian Council, an election-supervision body chaired by Ahmad Jannati since 1992, have traditionally been presided over by representatives of that generation.
However, the very internal mechanism of balance of powers put in place by the constitution to prevent the collapse of the system has also made room for some domestic political adjustments which have progressively enabled the political rise of a new, second generation forged by the Iran-Iraq war experience and made up of laymen (mostly linked to the pasdaran) and clerics who rarely lapse into clear-cut ideological positions but definitely have much more radical and Principlist views than the older generation, stirred by renewed nationalistic and religious zeal.
Over the last two decades the power held by the old traditional establishment has gradually been eroded by the emergence of this new generation who, over time, has won increasingly more parliament seats, governorates, and even the presidency in 2005-2013 under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The first signals of the decline of the first generation were already visible in that 2005 presidential election, when the man of the establishment, Rafsanjani, was (fairly) defeated by that of the second generation, Ahmadinejad. Then, in the very last few years leading to the 40th anniversary of the revolution, came two potentially fatal blows, as the deaths of two quintessential establishment personalities and key powerbrokers truly capable of balancing competing interests such as Rafsanjani (in 2017) and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (in late 2018) triggered major consequences which are still taking their toll throughout the whole domestic political landscape.
Actual kingmaker of post-1989 Iranian politics, Rafsanjani shaped the domestic political landscape as much as he himself shifted his own political views – originally a conservative cleric sustaining Khamenei’s rise to the supreme leadership, afterwards a key supporter of reformist Mohammad Khatami as his successor to the presidency, and finally the mastermind behind a large coalition representing a third, pragmatist pole made up of moderate reformist and conservative factions that endorsed Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections. His unexpected passing in January 2017 was a major blow to that political camp and Rouhani himself. Left without his political mentor, Rouhani managed to win a second mandate four months after Hashemi’s death, precisely thanks to the coalition Rafsanjani contributed to forging in order to prevent the comeback of a new Ahmadinejad. But that wide consensus has since eroded: Rouhani’s failure to live up to his economic and social promises exposed all the rifts within the coalition. The reformist camp has been progressively alienated, to the point that now, one year prior to 2020 parliamentary elections, the pragmatist coalition that supported the president in the past is nearly in tatters. The rift reveals growing tensions within the administration itself, exemplified by the resignations of a number of cabinet members (including some from the reformist camp) and the confrontational climate between Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi and first Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri (a former reformist presidential candidate) who repeatedly denounced intra-cabinet constraints to his authority.
But such growing domestic infighting is just one of the effects triggered by the passing of an experienced politician who could have lent a crucial hand in reconciling the political and generational power struggle that is today dividing the Islamic Republic in a way that, in the long run, may even threaten its very survival – uncompromisingly Rafsanjani’s and the older generation’s utmost priority. After Rafsanjani’s death, the chairmanship of the Expediency Council passed to Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi-born cleric and former head of the Judiciary (1999-2009). Powerful but often understated, he was touted as one of the potential candidates to Khamenei’s succession as Supreme Leader because of his vast theological knowledge and relatively younger age (born in 1948) in comparison with other personalities of the first generation. Yet he did not even outlive Khamenei, as he passed away in late 2018 from a terminal illness. Although less unexpected than Rafsanjani’s, Shahroudi’s death was nonetheless another major blow which triggered several domestic reshuffles involving both the judiciary and legislative powers, as well as the scramble for Khamenei’s succession. Just like in 2009, when he was handed the Head of Judiciary from Shahroudi, Sadegh Amoli Larijani, one of the most prominent personalities of the powerful Larijani family, was immediately appointed to replace the deceased cleric, this time as the new chairman of the Expediency Council. Currently still also heading the Judiciary and a member of both the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, Amoli Larijani is one of the people most loyal to Khamenei. With his appointment, the Expediency Council may take a more conservative turn, but in this regard Khamenei added further uncertainty, declaring that the body will undergo unspecified critical changes. It is not clear whether that means leaning towards more pragmatist views, like those of Amoli Larijani’s brother Ali, long-time speaker of the parliament, or rather in favour of more hardline stances. Yet, in light of today’s role of the Expediency Council in settling the ever more relevant dispute between the parliament and the Guardian Council on ratification of the counter-terrorism and anti-money laundering legislation needed to satisfy the requests of the Financial Action Trade Force (FATF) and remove Iran from its blacklist, the implications of Amoli Larijani’s appointment are definitely momentous.
This latest reshuffle also elevated Amoli Larijani’s position as a potential successor to Khamenei for the supreme leadership, at a time in which another credible candidate, Ebrahim Raisi (major rival to Rouhani in the 2017 presidential elections and head of one of the most powerful charitable organisations of the Islamic Republic, linked to the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad), is rumoured to be the one who will soon replace Amoli Larijani as head of Judiciary before his mandate expires in August. Rivalry for the succession to the leadership, from which Hassan Rouhani can’t yet be ruled out despite his eroding political capital and loss of consensus, is just one of the battlegrounds of the ongoing generational transition. With the passing of Rafsanjani and Shahroudi, the old age of remaining key personalities (Ali Khamenei 79, Ahmad Jannati 91, Nouri Hamedani 94, Jafar Sobhani 89, Mohammad Momen 81, Nasser Makarem Shirazi 91, to name a few), and the absence of a direct line of succession, those of the first generation of revolutionaries who are still in power are today left with no other choice but to manage the inevitable transition towards the newer generations, trying as much as possible to settle major inter-generational differences and restore confidence among the young and post-revolutionary segments of Iranian society. Therein lies nothing less than the future of Iran’s domestic stability and regime longevity.