As Iran prepares to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the question of who will succeed the ill and aging supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is resurfacing. No matter who that cleric might be, Iran is likely to be ruled by another religious figure who is far less powerful than Khamenei and more beholden to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who died in late December, had been considered the leading contender to replace Khamenei. Shahroudi was a Khamenei loyalist who rose to the highest ranks of the Islamic Republic’s political clerical elite under the supreme leader’s patronage and was considered his most likely successor. A former judiciary chief, Shahroudi was, like his patron, a staunch defender of the Islamic Revolution and its founding principle, velayat-e-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent).
Shahroudi had a sound command of classical Arabic and was well versed in Arab Islamic ideology, often reading the ideas of prominent Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb. Khamenei also looked to Shahroudi as a possible successor to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq—even though the Iraqi clerical establishment vehemently rejects the idea that a cleric who believes fully in velayat-e-faqih could succeed Sistani, who has a wide following among Shia across the Arab world. If Shahroudi had held either of these posts, Khamenei would be assured that his revolutionary ideals would live on.