Thirty years ago, when Ali Khamenei was ordained as the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, two prominent personalities cast a shadow on his leadership; Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmad Khomeini. One was a confidant of the founder of the Islamic Republic and a savvy operator and the other was the heir to Khomeini’s legacy and a key figure during his father’s rule.
Five years into Khamenei’s supreme leadership, one of these shadows disappeared when Ahmad Khomeini died, and the Khamenei faction breathed a sigh of relief.
If we imagine that Khamenei’s son Mojtaba can be a shadow over the head of the next Supreme Leader, like Khomeini’s son was, we can also say that Qassem Soleimani could have been an overwhelming presence, much like Rafsanjani was for Khamenei.
Rafsanjani was the ultimate insider who helped Khamenei become the Supreme Leader and gave crucial support to him in the early days. The question is if Soleimani could have played the same role for the next Supreme leader, had he not died in a U.S. drone strike on a ramp in Baghdad airport on January 3.
This could have been a distinct possibility. Soleimani was popular for regime insiders, he had amicable ties with all factions, represented Khamenei’s brand and without exaggeration we can say he was the number two man after Khamenei in the last few years.
However, more than being an ardent supporter of the concept of Supreme Leader, Soleimani was a devotee of Khamenei and it is not clear if he would have shown as much devotion to the next Supreme Leader.
If Soleimani was not killed, he could have become a center of gravity facing the future Leader, in the same manner Khomeini’s son Ahmad and Rafsanjani gradually became points of resistance to Khamenei, making his life difficult.
Thus, it can be argued Soleimani absence will benefit the future Supreme Leader. It will also aide the political-economic cartels within the regime who would want to control the future Leader.
Politics in Iran has witnessed a big change during Khamenei’s thirty-year rule. When he assumed the Leadership, powerful entities in the country were few. Instead there were a few powerful individuals.
But in the meantime, several dominant entities have put down deep roots and Khamenei’s successor not only must deal with influential personalities, but he will have to contend with powerful entities.
Khamenei was the architect of building bureaucracies. One is his headquarters, or “Beyt”, as it is known, made up of a large network of departments and offices employing thousands of people. Another powerful institution is the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) and its economic empire. These all operate outside the jurisdiction of the presidential administration and in fact overshadow it.
Khamenei was the person who allowed these entities to grow into huge establishments, but he appointed his trusted people to run them. His successor has to deal with centers of power he did not create and did not staff.
In Soleimani’s absence, bureaucratic managers and heads of entities can more easily engage in their own horse-trading without a strong military personality to rein them in. Soleimani was stronger than any bureaucracy or entity.
In the factional politics of the Islamic Republic the presence of someone like Soleimani makes a big difference. After all, a few non-transparent and un-accountable military and economic centers of power dominate Iran, as Khamenei’s rule was marked with suppression and obliteration of all other entities, including political parties and even the weakest symbols of civil society.