Over the past 12 months, many in Iran speculated that hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi was a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
According to some Iran watchers, Raisi had several characteristics that, in Khamenei’s eyes, made him a good candidate for the job; at 56, he was relatively young, had held several high-ranking offices in the judiciary, and was knowledgeable about domestic and international politics, as his interviews during the election campaign revealed.
More importantly, he shared similar ideas with Khamenei: a strong rhetoric against the West and Israel and in favor of a suppressive domestic and aggressive foreign policy. However, his defeat in May presidential election in Iran might have spoiled his chances.
Radio Farda contributor Akbar Ganji writes in an op-ed that Khamenei may consider another clergy as his potential successor: Ayatollah Ali Reza A’arafi, the head of Iran’s religious seminaries who plays a crucial role in Iran’s proxy war in Syria.
Ali Reza A’arafi, along with Ebrahim Raisi, Sadegh Larijani, Hashemi Shahroudi, is one of the clerics whose name is being mentioned as a possible successor to ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A’arafi received his religious education from some of the most renowned contemporary Shi’ite scholars in Iran and soon climbed the career ladder.
The list of positions he has held is long, but one of them stands out more than the others: president of al-Mustafa University. The institution is in fact an umbrella organization for religious seminaries providing education to foreign students within and outside of Iran.
With currently 40,000 students from 130 countries, al-Mustafa University harbors a huge army of potential sympathizers of ayatollahs who could spread their ideology around the globe.
But it seems the contributions of A’arafi’s institution goes beyond the so-called soft war and involves military endeavors, too -- namely recruiting foreign fighters for Iran's proxy war in Syria.
A huge number of fighters supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad were graduates of his religious seminaries. In a July 29 interview with conservative news website Sabernews, A’arafi said, “Many of them found martyrdom or became disabled. But a large number of them are still fighting,” he added.
Even though he claimed the fighters joined the military units in Syria voluntarily and without any intervention by him or his colleagues, his revelations were probably too sensitive for the higher authorities and that part of the the interview was removed quickly from all websites, including the semi-official Fars News Agency, which had republished the interview.
During the election campaign, Raisi received the title of 'ayatollah mass murderer' for his role in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. A’arafi, on the other hand, has kept a low profile regarding domestic political issues.
During the election campaign, Raisi received the title of “ayatollah mass murderer” for his role in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. A’arafi, on the other hand, has kept a low profile regarding domestic political issues.
However, looking at his recent statements, it does not seem the new potential candidate is any more moderate in terms of foreign policy than Raisi.
“America will take its wish for Iran to abandon production of military hardware to the grave,” said A’arafi last year about Iran’s missile tests.
In a speech almost a month ago, A’arafi called the United States an “epicenter of the violation against human rights” and added that Israel and Saudi Arabia were “terrorist” governments supported by Washington.
He also claimed that in the past eight years, his religious seminary had converted 50 million people to the Shi’ite religion around the world. The number is clearly an over-exaggeration, but it is an indication that A’arafi attempts to polish his profile, most probably with the purpose of increasing his chances for the office of supreme leader.
Khamenei, for one, was impressed. He has praised A’arafi as a “wise and intellectual scholar” and said on several occasions that he was “totally satisfied” with his performance.