Act II, the Khomeini chapter

In this article from Foreign Policy magazine, an unnamed special correspondent offers a rare peek into dynastic politics and power struggles in Iran.

TEHERAN • The Islamic Revolution, which is now 36 years old, is never forgotten here - but some corners fear that it is fading from public view.

Even as President Hassan Rouhani works to reintegrate Iran back into the global community, hardline elements have stepped up their efforts to weaken his camp of political moderates and portray his government as naive about the threat posed by the United States.

Circled by forces such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the judiciary, Mr Rouhani has started to look like a limited, fenced-in figure, incapable of changing too much about how the Islamic Republic operates.

Now, however, a new figure with the most famous last name in Iranian politics could become Mr Rouhani's inside man. Mr Hassan Khomeini, the best-known grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, registered on Dec 18 as a candidate in the coming elections for the Assembly of Experts. The 88-member committee is charged with selecting Iran's next supreme leader when the incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76 and said to be ailing, dies.


The young Khomeini is the first member of his family to seek public office since the death in 1989 of his feted grandfather, who founded the Islamic Republic and served as its first supreme leader.


The only question is whether the 43-year-old will be allowed to embark on a path that could eventually lead to the very top of Iran's complex power structure.

Hassan was born in Qom, the centre of religious education in Iran, and home to the country's clerical political establishment. His father, Ahmad, was involved only peripherally in government, having played an influential role in assisting his own father after the long-exiled ayatollah's triumphant return to Teheran in February 1979. Had he not died of a heart attack in 1995, Ahmad might have preceded his son's entry to electoral politics.

But now it is Hassan who is moving to centre stage.

Having studied and taught in Qom, his main job has been running the mausoleum in Teheran where his father and grandfather are interred, considered a hallowed task by many in Iran. He first started stirring notice in political circles in 2008, when he implicitly criticised Iran's new political and military elite, which has filled its pockets even while preaching loyalty to the revolution's founder and the Iranian people.

The IRGC, established by the first supreme leader to protect Iran from foreign and domestic threats, proved its worth during the Iran-Iraq war - but has since earned the enmity of many Iranians by engaging in widespread cronyism and throwing its weight behind the most hardline figures in the Islamic Republic.

"Those who claim to be loyal to Imam Khomeini should follow his order that the military must stay out of politics," the younger Khomeini said in an explosive speech when the IRGC was flexing its muscles in 2008 by supporting then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Khomeini met reformists before the polls the next year and then spoke out in support of the movement's two defeated candidates, Mr Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mr Mehdi Karroubi, who claimed the presidential ballot was rigged.

Keeping such company earned Mr Khomeini some credit among moderates. He also shunned Mr Ahmadinejad's inauguration, depriving it of the legitimacy of his family's endorsement.

Supporters have long wanted Mr Khomeini to enter the public arena. He is markedly younger than the current crop of top Iranian politicians and has already shown something of a youthful, common touch: He's known to be a fan of Iran's soccer league and has appeared as a guest on a popular television fanzine. On the show, he said he thought he could have had a career in the game if his grandfather had not ordered him to deepen his religious studies when he was 21 years old.


Mr Khomeini's 18-year-old son, Ahmad, is another asset. He has 188,000 followers on Instagram, which, unlike Facebook or Twitter, is not blocked in Iran and offers his father a platform to connect with young voters. The Instagram feed provides an insight into the societal change that Mr Khamenei shows no willingness to acknowledge: Photos show Ahmad in Nike sports clothes at a time when Mr Khamenei says American brands should be banned. Yet the teenager is also reverent towards his ancestors, posting pictures of his great-grandfather (who famously branded America "the Great Satan") and taking part in religious ceremonies himself, seamlessly inhabiting both the old and new Iran.

Meanwhile, Mr Hassan Khomeini has a powerful array of allies for the coming polls. President Rouhani and Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, are his main public backers; both are members of the Assembly and will seek new eight-year terms - a tenure Ayatollah Khamenei may not outlive.

Mr Mohammad Khatami, Iran's last reformist president and another figure close to Mr Khomeini, is less likely to be seen in public as the elections approach. Exemplifying the tension at the top of the political system, Mr Khatami's image is banned by the authorities, after being cast aside and dubbed a "seditionist" by the regime since the pro-democracy protests of 2009.

However, the former president has shown he still has political influence: It was he who urged Mr Mohammad Reza Aref, a reformist, to withdraw from the 2013 presidential election, which allowed Mr Rouhani to win by consolidating the support of moderate voters.


But there are other members of Iran's political system who want Mr Khomeini to stay out of public life. His potential adversaries know him as a moderate cleric, similar to Mr Rouhani, but much younger and with reformist instincts. Already weakened and angry at Mr Rouhani's nuclear deal, Iran's conservative political faction is anxious that the Feb 26 elections for the Assembly of Experts and Parliament could see their influence reduced further.

If things go really badly for the conservatives, they could even be reduced to third place in Parliament - lagging behind moderates backed by the President and a quiet but potentially reinvigorated reformist faction.

Iran's powerful military establishment is also mobilising against the idea that Ayatollah Khamenei should not be succeeded by one person, but rather by a decision-making body made up of the country's most senior figures. The idea has been floated by those close to Mr Rafsanjani, a figure staunchly opposed by the military.

"If the leadership becomes a council, the country will suffer and our strong unity against America, Zionists and imperialist enemies will break down," armed forces chief of staff Hassan Fayrouz Abadi said on the same day Mr Khomeini became a political candidate.

It's not the first time Mr Khomeini has risked running afoul of the most committed Khamenei loyalists. In a sign of the tension, Ansar-e Hizbollah, a radical faction that professes loyalty to the principles of the revolution, warned him seven months ago - even before he said he was running - against making a public speech.


Given Mr Khomeini's lineage, the hardliners will have an especially hard time painting him as outside the bounds of Iran's political system. But Mr Khomeini's last name can offer him only so much protection if he chooses to align himself with reformists - and, hence, against the conservative clerical establishment to which the military is loyal. The IRGC and the Basij, an allied paramilitary volunteer force, responded to the pro-democracy Green Movement that emerged in 2009 after Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election with a vicious crackdown - one that didn't spare the families of Mr Mousavi and Mr Karroubi, two leading figures of the Islamic Revolution, and friends of the elder Mr Khomeini.

Today, the very same forces are circling Mr Rouhani. They have used their powers to embarrass him with the recent arrests of foreigners and the conviction for espionage of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian. The head of the IRGC, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, has even warned darkly that the nuclear deal could spearhead a new attempt to overthrow the regime.

"We consider negotiations equal to infiltration," said the powerful military chief about Mr Rouhani's crowning achievement. "It is unfortunate that some domestic officials do not understand this."

The President himself has yet to openly criticise the IRGC, but he has repeatedly hinted at his annoyance at the force and Iran's other hardline bulwark, the judiciary, as well as conservative media outlets for undermining the government.

"You learn from some publications who will be arrested tomorrow, what is going to be closed down tomorrow, which individual's reputation should be damaged," Mr Rouhani said last Nov 8, less than two weeks after the Guards had detained the American-Iranian businessman Siamak Namazi. While Mr Rouhani has spoken of a prisoner swop of detained Iranians for its American prisoners, the judiciary has stayed silent even on the length of Rezaian's jail sentence, a sign of its detachment from the President.

The official electoral campaign season runs for only two weeks for the Assembly, and one week for the Parliament - but the battle for influence has been raging for months. The polls for the Assembly carry more potency than normal, because of renewed speculation about the health of Ayatollah Khamenei, who had prostate surgery in 2014. The supreme leader is viewed as above criticism, but talk of the succession is growing and has received some level of official blessing. Mr Rafsanjani - who, despite being older than the Ayatollah, is still seen as a potential successor - recently revealed that the Assembly has started to look at potential replacements.

While a startling admission in itself, the announcement takes on new relevance because of Mr Khomeini's entry to politics. Ayatollah Khamenei's inner circle has been struggling to identify a successor who has the necessary combination of religious training, political influence and public charisma to lead Iran. Unlike most of the names mentioned - Mr Rafsanjani; head of judiciary Sadegh Larijani; and former judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi - Mr Khomeini bears the black clerical turban, which denotes his direct lineage to Prophet Muhammad.

Although Mr Khomeini's name alone will not get him the job of supreme leader, the situation could quickly change. A few years on the Assembly could burnish his credentials, as well as neutralise the issue of his relative youth. Or, if the succession comes quicker than that, he could swing support for a less hardline candidate.

What is not in doubt is that Mr Khomeini has become the man of the moment, enlivening Iran's politics and bringing the high stakes in Teheran to the fore. Like his grandfather, he could well emerge as a major figure at a critical point in the country's political history. But, first, he has to outmanoeuvre his powerful hardline rivals.


  • Jonathan Eyal's Global Affairs column resumes next Monday.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'Act II, the Khomeini chapter'. Print Edition | Subscribe