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Is Iran's Next Supreme Leader Already Chosen?

Iran-- Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) along President Hassan Rouhani, April 14, 2018.

A key member of Iran's Assembly of Experts, a body that will select the country's next Supreme Leader to replace Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says "it is not prudent and expedient" to reveal the names of potential successors.

Only a few days after another prominent member of the Assembly, Mohsen Araki talked about a top secret list of prospective supreme leaders, Ayatollah Hashem Hashemzadeh Harisi, also a key member of the Assembly said on Monday the names on the list will not be disclosed.

Harisi said such a list also existed at the time of Iran's previous leader Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, but it is not in the country's best interest even "to talk about such a list."

Harisi was probably alluding to the fact that rivalry among prospective candidates and their supporters could further fragment the Islamic Republic, which has already been suffering from the perils of factionalism particularly in the past decade.

Ayatollah Araki had said last week in an interview with Fars news agency that a committee of three Assembly members who have worked on the top-secret list, will present three names to the Assembly "when it is necessary."

Earlier, in 2016, another influential Assembly of Expert member, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami had said that the committee had given three names from the list to Khamenei to seek his verdict.

However, Khatami was forced to say under political pressure that what he said was "hypothetical," and as it happens after almost every controversial remark by an Iranian official, he blamed the media for "misreporting his words."

Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had also said in an interview in 2016 that there was a committee of three who actively looked for the next leader. He said "two or three experts do their research and at the end they give two names to Khamenei."

Until a few months before Khomeini's death in 1989, Iran had a designated next leader. But under pressure from political rivals the prospective leader, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, was deposed as a successor and held under house arrest for many years.

In fact what makes Iran less stable than its regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia is that the latter has a designated Crown Prince, but Iran's future is always subject to doubts and speculations.

Many believe most of the political dynamics that have dangerously divided the country and its politicians is fuelled by plans, aspirations and wishful thinking by players who wish to replace Khamenei as the Islamic Republic of Iran's Supreme Leader.

What creates sleepless nights for Khamenei and his prospective successors is that in the last and only time the Assembly had to choose a leader, there was a powerful figure such as Rafsanjani who played the role of a kingmaker and power broker who managed the situation and prevented any crisis.

However, this time not only there is no agreed-upon kingmaker, but there are hinderances to decision making including the presence of a powerful player, IRGC, which did not exist as such in 1989.

Expressing his objection to the committee of three short list, Harisi said on Monday that "the leader must be determined by all or a majority of Assembly of Expert members, not by a small committee."

However, he confirmed that the existence of such a committee, but believes its decision will not be fateful.

"In 1989 the committee's choice was not selected as leader", Harisi said. Although he did not name that choice, politicians in Tehran know that the man's name had been leaked to clerical circles: Grand Ayatollah Mohamad Reza Golpayegani.

Khamenei has reportedly told Assembly of Expert members in a meeting in the 2000s: "You should have at least 10 Supreme Leaders up your sleeves."

No one knows, or no one has claimed to know who Iran’s next supreme leader is. But anecdotal accounts say Khamenei's preferred candidate for the post is his son Mojtaba. President Hassan Rouhani and Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi have never refuted rumors about their aspirations to emerge as the next supreme leader. Most other candidates have either died or have been discredited in the quagmire of Iranian politics.

If Mojtaba is really Khamenei's choice, there is no guarantee that others will respect his wish after his death. On the other hand there is no indication, at least in the media, about Khamenei grooming his son for the position.