To Secure His Legacy, Khamenei Is Packing Iran’s Government With Young Radicals
The supreme leader’s youth-washing strategy could keep detente with the United States off the table for years.
In just under a year, Iran will elect a new president. Coming after the U.S. election this November, there is some hope that the occasion could usher in improved U.S.-Iranian relations. Yet, given the way Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been narrowing the field of candidates, that seems unlikely.
Khamenei set the scene for the upcoming vote with a manifesto published in February 2019 with the title “The Second Phase of the Revolution.” In it, he reflects on the 40 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and charts a vision for the next 40. Khamenei appears to understand that, at age 81, he will not remain leader forever, and so he seeks to ensure that his principles outlive him. The predominant strategy the manifesto puts forth is “javangarayi va javansazi modiriyat-e keshvar” or the “youthfulness and rejuvenation of the country’s management,” through which young supporters “prepare the ground for the formation of a young and pious government.”
In government, this so-called youth-washing project has taken the form of stocking unelected political offices with people who are either younger or more hard-line. Since 2019, Khamenei has replaced several military elites in the armed forces (Joint Staff), conventional military (Artesh), and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to inject new blood into the veins of the regime. His old representatives in the state bureaucracy, local governments, and universities have likewise been replaced by a young and even more radical generation.
For example, in March 2019, the ultraconservative hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi stepped in for Sadeq Larijani as chief justice of Iran. Raisi previously lost to President Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s 2017 presidential election and played a prominent role in the mass execution of thousands of leftist political prisoners as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran in 1988. After he became the head of Iran’s judiciary, the use of the death penalty in the country has escalated. Since late June, 11 Iranian citizens—three in Tehran and eight in Isfahan—have been sentenced to death for taking part in mass anti-government protests in November 2019. Meanwhile, the Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was accused of fueling anti-government protests through a popular Telegram channel in 2017, received a death sentence last month. He had fled to exile in France before being arrested by Iranian authorities in Iraq.
Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, an elected body, was also significantly influenced by Khamenei’s political project this year. In May, Gen. Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, an IRGC technocrat, three-time loser in previous presidential elections, and close friend of Khamenei’s son and potential successor Mojtaba Khamenei, ascended to the position of speaker of parliament. He is known for a series of corruption cases and his ardent support of using live fire against student protesters. Meanwhile, the Guardian Council, a 12-person body appointed by the supreme leader, vets every candidate for national office. Since 2019, the council has favored only candidates who display total loyalty to the supreme leader and his so-called revolutionary politics. In the latest parliamentary election, 90 previous members of parliament were disqualified from running again.
The 2021 presidential election will be the final piece of the puzzle in Khamenei’s “Second Phase of the Revolution,” regardless of whether the Iranian people share his vision. For his purposes, the candidates must have revolutionary loyalty he seeks, the management skills to run a regime under internal and external pressure, and, less importantly, some degree of popularity among the people. Such candidates would be in the political vein of popular hard-liner and ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, yet even more loyal to Khamenei.
On its own, the political landscape engineered by Khamenei already severely restricts the spectrum of ideology presidential candidates may hold. Left-leaning groups including the Reformists (such as former President Mohammad Khatami) and centrist pragmatists (such as current President Rouhani) no longer have a place in an election that seeks the formation of a secure, young, “revolutionary” administration.
Although such figures previously marked a divide between the state’s elected bodies and its unelected bodies, Khamenei is now laser-focused on ensuring the consolidation of hard-liner power and a smooth succession upon his death; he will no longer need or tolerate any duality that creates a potential impasse for the regime. Reformists and centrists are now liabilities when internal dissent is more dangerous than ever.
The regime does not admit to insecurity, of course, but nonetheless there is considerable fear that any misstep could sabotage a system already in distress. Meanwhile, Khamenei’s job in purging his undesirables from the competition is easier than before, since reformists and pragmatists have lost much of their credibility among Iranians due to immense mismanagement, incompetency, and corruption in recent administration. From the 2017-2018 protests on, the slogan “Reformists, hard-liners, it is over for all of you!” has become increasingly popular.
With all of Khamenei’s political calculations in mind, there are a few possible contenders for the presidency. They come from the right of the political spectrum and are generally known as the principlists, or osoulgarayan. Among the osoulgarayan, there are roughly three factions: traditional principlists (closest to the center), neo-principlists (further right), and radical principlists (furthest right). The ideal president for Khamenei would lean as far to the right as possible, while still articulating a modern economic vision.
Traditional principlists such as the Islamic Coalition Party advocate for conservative social policies and are mostly connected to the bazaaris, the traditional middle and upper class with roots in the marketplaces. These groups advocate for economic advancement through increased trade, rather than further domestic industrialization. They have a small social base and lack presence and support among IRGC—a must for success in the Iranian political system. In an internal meeting of the principlists, the traditionalists’ main parliamentary candidate, Mostafa Mirsalim, received only 5 votes out of 240 in the selection for speaker of parliament.
On the other end of the principlist spectrum are the radical principlists who favor isolationism from the West and expansionism in the Middle East. They are the most anti-Western and anti-American faction on the right side of the political spectrum. They are mostly allies of Ayatollah Taqi Misbah Yazdi, the leader of a fundamentalist political group called the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability. His associates have the support of younger and more radical members of the Basij, Iran’s voluntary paramilitary militia, but not of the more status quo-oriented majority. Any candidate from this camp would be a staunch hard-liner and consistent challenge to any remaining centrists, let alone reformers, within the regime.
Ahmadinejad, who was president from 2005 to 2013, was very close to this group. His return is the subject of much speculation, but his candidacy would be nonviable due to a fallout with Khamenei in 2011 over Ahmadinejad’s attempt to seize control over the Ministry of Intelligence, among other maneuvers. In 2017, Ahmadinejad allegedly applied for a third term that Khamenei rejected. The former president’s close allies Hamid Baghaei and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, both former vice presidents, were likewise disqualified by the Guardian Council before being sentenced to prison for embezzlement and economic corruption. Ahmadinejad is still popular among some poorer Iranians, but there is no hope for his return.
Saeed Jalili, potentially a promising equivalent in Khamenei’s eyes, is also very close to radical principlists. A failed 2013 presidential candidate, he is the former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and acted as one of Iran’s hard-liner nuclear negotiators. He is both an extreme loyalist—he even lost a leg as a volunteer fighter in the Iran-Iraq War—and a well-versed diplomat with a Ph.D. in political science.
The strongest political subgroup among the principlists is the neo-principlist camp, whose base is the middle class and higher echelons of the IRGC. This includes politicians such as Qalibaf, the new speaker of parliament, who is a former commander of the IRGC air force, head of Iran’s police, and mayor of Tehran. Candidates from this ideological stream generally tout technocratic experience and strong relations with the IRGC. They are less isolationist but promote a self-sufficient economy, called the “resistance economy,” and are confrontational toward the West and the United States.
One of the rising stars of this group is Parviz Fattah, a former IRGC member and former minister of energy under Ahmadinejad. The Middle East Institute’s Kasra Aarabi has written about how, as the head of the Mostazafan Foundation, a charitable foundation controlled by the supreme leader, Fattah might be able to ease concerns among Iran’s poor. Another potential candidate in this group is Saeed Mohammad, head of Khatam al-Anbiya, Iran’s largest military contractor. Between his high rank in the IRGC and Ph.D. in engineering, he strikes a balance between extreme loyalism and a modern intellectual bent that can appeal both domestically and internationally.
Given Iran’s economic problems—now worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic—the need for some semblance of growth advantages the neo-principlist, technocratic camp, which can promote itself as both loyal and able to fix the broken bureaucratic system. This group would also be most able to mobilize parts of the middle class by playing up its candidates’ technocratic rather than radical backgrounds. But it will be careful not to drum up too much popular support; the future president cannot pose any challenges to Khamenei’s vision, as Ahmadinejad did.
As for the rest of the world, the installation of a neo-principlist president presents two possible scenarios. Domestic analysts such as Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, and Ali Motahari, a former deputy speaker of the Majlis, argue that the homogenization of the regime will reduce internal dissent and ultimately lead to smoother negotiations with the West. Beyond Iran, Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies, likewise posits that “Iran’s hard-liners may offer the U.S. concessions for the sake of the regime’s survival.”
However, it was direct conflict, not internal dissent, that sabotaged diplomatic efforts. In Iran, all strategic decisions ultimately flow from the supreme leader, who is deeply suspicious toward the West, and especially the United States. Khamenei never fully supported Rouhani’s negotiations with the West, and the breakdown of the deal will only have strengthened that stance.
In his 40-year plan, Khamenei has clearly articulated the regime’s totalitarian aspirations, and the leadership he is putting in place ensures that his stringency will outlive him. Still, that could be dangerous: As Khamenei engineers his absolute control, his supporters have no one else to blame should his vision fail.
Saeid Golkar is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and, concurrently, a nonresident senior fellow on Middle East policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.