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Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky, the Director of Research at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) and Senior Editor of Defense & Foreign Affairs publications (including the Global…

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Sharoudi Emerging as Candidate to Replace Khamene'i as Iranian "Supreme Leader"

Very senior officials in several Persian Gulf states have confirmed to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs a growing volume of whispers coming from Tehran since mid-December 2009 which identify Iranian Ayatollah Sayed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (born in 1948) as the new candidate-successor to Iran’s ailing “Supreme Leader”, “Ayatollah” Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i. (1)

The mere floating of Shahroudi’s name is a major development with both domestic and regional ramifications.

Iran’s mid-June 2009 intense presidential elections, which led to the current crisis, were actually not over the election of Iran’s President. Rather, the elections served as an instrument for a power struggle within the clerical administration over which Tehran camp would hold supreme power by dominating the election of Khamene‘i’s successor. Khamene‘i’s health had been deteriorating to the point that his death was mis-reported several times. While Khamene‘i has been firmly holding to power, aided by his son Mojtaba’s tight control over the actual security of the Administration’s key leaders, a fierce power struggle developed in the Spring and early Summer of 2009.

Two camps crystallized around two potential successors to Khamene‘i. Since these camps could not be identified as such, they also pushed forward their respective presidential candidates and used the elections as an instrument for their quest for power:

(1) The old-guard: the founding fathers’ generation of the Islamic revolution who are reluctant to give up the power and privilege they have been holding since February 1979. Their real leader and candidate is “Ayatollah” Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and their presidential candidate was Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khameneh.

(2) The younger generation: comprised of the second generation of leaders who grew up in the front-line of the Iran-Iraq war and the campaigns sponsoring jihadist terrorism. Their candidate is Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, the Secretary of the Guardian Council, and their presidential candidate was Ahmadi-Nejad.

It is a generational struggle which has nothing to do with “moderates” versus “conservatives”. Since the average age of Iran’s population is very young, it is only a matter of time before the younger leaders will consolidate their hold onto power by the sheer power of demography. Hence, to a great extent, the elections of mid-June 2009 were the last chance for the older generation to hold onto power for a while longer. (Indeed, the popular riots in Tehran have nothing to do with the real power struggle behind the elections.)

The eruption of street violence in the aftermath of the presidential elections stunned the mullahs. While the rioters did not, and still do not, threaten the crux of the administration, the mere continuation of the riots threatens to exacerbate the internal schism. Indeed, Mousavi’s initial willingness to be identified with the “green movement” raised the specter of a major crack in the Mullahs’ traditional quest for self-preservation by uniting against external foes.

This apprehension prompted Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) and currently the Secretary of the Expediency Council, to write to Khamene‘i in early December and launch the ensuing quest for compromises. Rezai argued that it is imperative to defuse the power struggle at the top so that the Mullahs can unite both against the domestic unrest and in support of the pursuit of Iran’s strategic ascent. Rezai urged Khamene‘i to declare “a new movement for unity and brotherhood of all” in pursuit of national reconciliation. In practical terms, Rezai advocated a political compromise which would keep Mousavi out of politics without penalties, and thus enable the Administration to focus on suppressing the “green movement” in the streets before it got out of hand. At Rezai’s urging, Mousavi and Akbar Ganji explicitly distanced themselves from the street violence, especially the Ashura riots in Tehran, and then went underground. Concurrently, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the Head of the Expediency Council, rallied several leading politicians to call for “unity of all” and the “return to calm”.

The mentioning of Shahroudi as a possible successor to Khamene‘i first occurred in the context of Rezai’s initiative. Shahroudi makes a very interesting compromise candidate. In the early 1980s, he became the head of a prominent hawza on the basis of his expertise on Usul al-Fiqh, the study of the origins, sources, and principles of Islamic jurisprudence. That he arrived in Qom as a protégé of the late “Ayatollah” Ruhollah Khomeini did not hinder his ascent. Shahroudi then became a senior member in the Supreme Council of Scientific Hawza in Qom. In this capacity he was responsible for all religious hawza curricula. Soon afterwards, Shahroudi initiated and excelled in running a program to use the hawza system in order to identify, educate and indoctrinate a new generation of clerics to serve as the future bulwark of the Islamic Revolution. This program attracted Khamene‘i’s attention as he was vying for power.

After his 1988 election as Supreme Leader, Khamene‘i adopted Shahroudi as one of his closest disciples and nominated him a member jurist of the Guardian Council of the Constitution. Significantly, he was appointed as a member of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution at the same time as Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karoubi, and other veteran leaders. In mid-1999, Shahroudi was appointed as head of the judiciary. In this capacity, he led the ruthless suppression of the leaders of the reformist (aka “student”) movement.

At first, Shahroudi advocated summary justice to the leaders, pointing out that there were no prisons in Mohammed’s times. He later relented and agreed to incarcerate the leaders under a regime of special “judicial rulings” rather than via the Iranian court system. At the same time, he objected to rampant torture including protracted solitary confinement. Shahroudi held his position for 10 years. His tenure as a supreme judge is considered as the turning point in Iranian judicial history in which the judiciary system irrevocably lost whatever semblance of independence “Ayatollah” Khomeini permitted it to enjoy.

Shahroudi left the judiciary in August 2009, just before the eruption of the controversy over the trials of the opposition leaders. Hence, he was not tainted in the eyes of either the Ahmadi-Nejad or the Mousavi camps. His successor, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, is held responsible for the suppression of the rioters of 2009.

Thus, Shahroudi is an old-guard ayatollah with impeccable revolutionary credentials; a man who climbed the political-religious ladder in step with Hashemi-Rafsanjani and other luminaries of the first generation. However, the younger generation of clerics know and respect him because he ran their education and empowerment in the hawza system. Although he supported Ahmadi-Nejad’s position in the aftermath of the elections, Shahroudi was brave enough to attend the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral in 2009. Ultimately, as a supreme judge, Shahroudi was also notorious for fighting corruption. As such, he was the scourge of Hashemi-Rafsanjani and his supporters who are notorious for their corruption. However, Shahroudi was smart enough not to touch Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s family.

Most important for Iran’s regional strategy is Shahroudi’s unique relations with Iraq and particularly the Shi’ite élite. Shahroudi was born in Karbala in 1948 to an Arab-Persian family whose real name is Sharudi. He was to change his name to the Persian-sounding Shahroudi only in the early-1980s after the outbreak of the war with Iraq. He first attended the Arabic-language Hawza Ilmiya in Karbala. He then moved to Najaf and studied under the most prominent Arab-nationalist clerics then led by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. He escaped to Iran in 1977 when Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein launched the first major crackdown of the al-Sadr camp and the Shi’ite élite. Only then Shahroudi really mastered the Persian language.

After the Islamic Revolution, Shahroudi became the link between Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and Imam Khomeini. After Ayatollah al-Sadr was executed by the Iraqis on April 9, 1980, his son, also Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, formed a collective leadership to lead the Iraqi Shi’ite opposition. The leadership included al-Sadr, Shahroudi, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, Kazem Haeri, and Murtaza Askari. After the outbreak of the war with Iraq, Tehran transformed the leadership into the more formal Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Khomeini nominated Shahroudi as “president”. However, in 1982, Iranian intelligence decided to take over SCIRI and transform it into one of its principal instruments for spreading subversion and terrorism into Iraq and the Persian Gulf Sheikhdoms and Emirates. They elected to nominate the pliant Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim as “president” and Khomeini dispatched Shahroudi to the Scientific Hawza in Qom.

Thus, if he ascends to power in Tehran, Shahroudi would also have immense influence over Baghdad. This influence and authority would increase after the death of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is already old and infirm. Shahroudi has followers and students among all Iraq’s Shi’ite factions and parties. Significantly, although Ayatollah Kazem Haeri is the Marja Taqlid of Moqtada al-Sadr, Moqtada has already let it be known that he would listen to his grandfather’s most important student.


Iraq is not the only Shi’ite-populated area which attracted Shahroudi’s attention since the mid-1980s. The young cleric program he established in Qom has been paying close attention to non-Persian candidates with emphasis on members of cross-border minorities: Arabs (Iraqis, Gulf Arabs and Lebanese), Azerbaijanis, Sistanis, and Pakistanis. Shahroudi considered the Arabs and Azerbaijanis the most important communities for sustaining the Islamic Revolution and expanding its regional influence. Hence, he has many students and followers among the Azerbaijani religious élite in both Iran and Azerbaijan. Should Shahroudi succeeds Khamene‘I, he would also rely on these followers and students to expand Iran’s influence and reach in the Caspian Sea Basin while attempting to undermine the government in Baku.

Shahroudi is thus better suited than any other Iranian aspirant leader to bring a Shi’ite-ruled Iraq under Tehran’s hegemony and increase Iran’s influence in the Caspian Sea Basin. This would alter the posture in the Persian Gulf states where the Shi’ite majorities are increasingly looking to Najaf and Karbalah for guidance and inspiration against the Sunni ruling élites. These prospects have alarmed the very senior officials in several Gulf States once the rumors about the possible rise to power of Ayatollah Sayed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi started.


1) The use of quotation marks around the religious title of ayatollah is meant to indicate that the particular user of the title is not regarded as a fully or legitimately qualified ayatollah, but rather is a political ayatollah who has taken, or been given, the title as part of the clerical political scene. In Iranian terms, these are often referred to as “margarine ayatollahs”; ie: not the real thing. There is often outrage in genuinely religious circles in Iran against these political ayatollahs.

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS.
Extract from Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis
© 2009 Global Information System, ISSA

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