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Iran’s Next Supreme Leader Is Dead

And it’s not going to be easy for the Islamic Republic to survive without him.

Iranian reformist Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, at right, speaks with hardline Judiciary Chief Mahmood Shahroudi in Tehran on Dec. 12, 2002. (Keivan/Getty Images)
Iranian reformist Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, at right, speaks with hardline Judiciary Chief Mahmood Shahroudi in Tehran on Dec. 12, 2002. (Keivan/Getty Images)

On Christmas Eve (not that it matters in Iran), Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, one of Tehran’s most understated powerbrokers, died after a particularly grueling year combating cancer. Despite his relative anonymity outside Iran compared to his more outspoken and controversial clerical colleagues, Shahroudi was a quintessential establishment figure with unfettered access to the apex of power and, rather unusually, reasonable relations across factional lines. More importantly, he was also touted as a leading candidate to succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His early death not only reshapes but could also greatly polarize the succession politics at play and create more instability for Iran.

Shahroudi was born in 1948 in Iraq to Iranian parents, a pedigree (known in Persian as moaved) not unusual among Iran’s political elite, most prominently the Larijani brothers, who currently head the legislature and the judiciary. He studied under the leading clerical authorities in his hometown of Najaf, including the spiritual doyen of Iraq’s Dawa Party, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and to a lesser extent, Iran’s future Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1974, Iraq’s Baath regime imprisoned and tortured him and others amid a large-scale crackdown on the Shiite clergy. After Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, Shahroudi headed the newly created Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, but with Khamenei’s rise as supreme leader in 1989, he decided to pursue his political fortunes in Iran and shed his Iraqi trappings.

A prominent figure in the gilded seminary milieu in Qom, Iran, Shahroudi had clerical credentials that were near impeccable, further easing his entry into Iran’s political establishment. Outside the years 1999 to 2009, when he headed the judiciary, Shahroudi served from 1995 until his death as member of the Guardian Council, the powerful conservative watchdog that ensures the Islamic consistency and compatibility of parliamentary legislation and electoral candidates alike. He was likewise in the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that selects the supreme leader’s successor, and a member of the Expediency Council, created toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War to adjudicate disagreements between parliament and the Guardian Council; this council subsequently also began advising the supreme leader on the broad contours of policy and strategy. After the 2017 death of its chairman—Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a highly influential former president—Khamenei tapped Shahroudi as his replacement. Shahroudi was therefore clearly a figure Khamenei could rely on, a figure the supreme leader recently eulogized as a “faithful executor in the Islamic Republic’s most important institutions.”

Most Iranians remember Shahroudi as the head of the country’s notorious judiciary between 1999 and 2009, a period spanning Mohammad Khatami and then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s diametrically opposed governments. During this time, Shahroudi presided over a witch hunt against reformist parliamentarians and newspapers, students and intellectuals, human rights activists and, at the end of his tenure, the pro-reformist Green Movement protesting against the fraudulent elections that handed Ahmadinejad a second term.

As judiciary chief, Shahroudi is reported to have overseen, directly or indirectly, some 2,000 executions, including of minors. During Shahroudi’s medical visit to Hannover, Germany, in January 2018, protests erupted, and the German authorities considered charges against him but then ultimately ditched the idea. His choice for Tehran prosecutor-general, Saeed Mortazavi, was widely held responsible for the rape and murder of the detained Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.

On the other hand, Shahroudi was also credited with introducing some reforms, including reinstituting the separation between judges and prosecutors abolished by his predecessor Mohammad Yazdi, suspending stoning as capital punishment, and proposing a bill granting more legal protection to minors. Around the time of his death, reformist-leaning newspapers such as Shahrvand depicted him as an “iconoclast judge of judges” (qazi ol-qazat-e sonnat-shekan), and official government media outlets including the Islamic Republic News Agency-owned Iran called him “progressive.”

Shahroudi, who like Khomeini and Khamenei wore the black turban marking him as a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, didn’t just possess the required religious scholarship to become supreme leader, the sort that placed one in high standing in Tehran and Qom’s politically charged environment, if not in Najaf. Instead, his unique selling point as potential supreme leader lay as much in his cross-factional appeal among the Iranian establishment as in the continuity he represented—two assets critical to Iran’s future political stability. Unlike Khamenei and many hard-liners, Shahroudi maintained reasonably good ties with all four of Iran’s existing factions: conservatives, neoconservatives, moderate conservatives, and reformists. This was reflected in his 2011 appointment to head a custom-created, five-man body known clunkily as the Supreme Council for Dispute Resolution and Regulation of Relations Among the Three Branches of Government, a response to the spiraling tiffs between then-President Ahmadinejad and an increasingly irate parliament. While an undisputed conservative of the cloth, he was also open enough to earn the grudging respect of the conservatives’ rivals.

Similarly, his faithfulness to Khamenei and the office of the supreme leader, known as velayat-e faqih, could have ensured an institutional continuity tempered only by his comparably more balanced relations with the other centers of power, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Unlike Khamenei, he didn’t have to pander to the latter as he built up his power base.

Shahroudi was also the only Shiite cleric in the rarefied pantheon of possible successors, or even anywhere, doubly rumored to have been angling for leadership of Iraq’s Shiites. Back in 2012, reports surfaced of Shahroudi building up a patronage network inside Iran’s western neighbor and specifically Najaf, greased by the levy of religious taxes and Iranian state funds. As things appeared, Shahroudi sought to undermine or even replace the aging Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s and therefore Twelver Shiites’ premier spiritual authority. Tehran had a good reason, too: the Iranian-born Sistani—a mirror image of Shahroudi—quietly opposed Iran’s political system based on the supreme leader’s rule, velayat-e faqih.

If Shahroudi was seen as an outsider with his Iraqi provenance and Semitic-laced Persian, neither quite Iranian nor fully Iraqi, his background at least held out some possibility of appealing to Twelver Shiite communities beyond Iran’s borders, and most critically in Iraq, where Shiites have tended to give velayat-e faqih short shrift. Ever since Saddam’s toppling in 2003, Iraq’s Shiite-majority government has gravitated closer toward Iran, but it continues to maintain a political autonomy at times grating to Tehran.

Iran’s internal stability and regime longevity—increasingly challenged by spontaneous protests countrywide over the past year—depend on the political class collectively accepting a supreme leader capable of forging consensus and balancing competing interests. Shahroudi’s unique ability to span the divides of the Iranian political and clerical establishment was one reason his name was repeatedly floated as Khamenei’s eventual successor. He was also both theologically and managerially qualified and among the few relatively nonelderly clerics viewed as politically reliable by Iran’s ruling establishment.

But the hard-liners’ longtime stranglehold on the key levers of military, judicial, media, and clerical power will now leave little room for Iran’s reformists and moderates, among them current President Hassan Rouhani, to weigh in on the succession process. Shahroudi’s death thus paves the way for hard-line candidates, notably from the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, the Assembly of Experts, and the judiciary’s top ranks. Barring the 91-year-old ultraconservative head of both the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, Ahmad Jannati, two other candidates stand out: outgoing judiciary chief and newly appointed Expediency Council head Sadeq Larijani and, of late, Ebrahim Raisi—the current custodian of Mashhad’s powerful Astan Quds Razavi foundation, a 2017 presidential contender, and the rumored next chief of judiciary. Compared to Shahroudi, both clerics have far less patience for their moderate and reformist rivals, who in turn are less likely to accept them in Khamenei’s wake.

With the first generation of Iran’s revolutionary clerics fast fading out, Shahroudi’s relatively early death at 70 eliminates what is perhaps the most serious and qualified succession candidate so far floated in Tehran’s corridors of power. Although he may not necessarily have preferred a more conciliatory foreign policy, the late Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi may have represented the least politically divisive and most domestically stabilizing alternative for Iran’s highest office. Iran’s acrimonious elite infighting may be normal and not necessarily a sign of regime weakness, but this requires a supreme leader generally accepted by all to adjudicate differences. In a country whose future already appears bleaker by the day, the ruling regime, which enters its 40th year of existence, may now more than ever need precisely such a figure.

Kevjn Lim is a doctoral researcher at Tel Aviv University's School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs. He is also a Middle East and North Africa consultant for IHS Markit.