The Middle East post-Khamenei and Sistani

In a February 6 event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, leading thinkers on Iran gathered to discuss the future of Iran post-Khamenei. Ali Mamouri, lecturer at the University of Sydney, and Suzanne Maloney, a deputy director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Mehdi Khalaji, the Libitzky Family Fellow at the Washington Institute, moderated.

Khalaji framed the conversation around his new study, The Future of Leadership in the Shiite Community. Specifically, he discussed the role Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi might play in the post-Khamenei Shiite community. Because of both Khamenei and Sistani’s advanced ages (seventy-seven and eighty-six respectively), Shahroudi may be poised to become Supreme Leader of Iran as well as to take over the role top religious authority for Shia Islam. Khalaji believes it is useful to know him because there is no pattern to follow on succession. We can and should expect surprises. This opened the discussion up to the future of Shiism in the region more generally.

Mamouri discussed the future of Iraq and the prospects for Shiism after Sistani. The relationship between Sistani and Khamenei, while not hostile, is also not entirely friendly. Sistani’s Iraq and Khamenei’s Iran present two different models of governance and religious authority, a traditional Shiite system and the wilayat al-faqih theocratic model respectively. He said competition between the two sides has centered on control of Shiite Iraqis. Sistani tries to avoid sectarian problems while Iran tries to remain influential among Shiites within Iraq. The death of either would create a vacuum that the other could easily dominate. If Sistani dies first, the search for a new leader could take five to ten years, during which time Khamenei would expand his influence.

Maloney  discussed US policy in Iran and how religious succession might influence America’s attitude in the region. The US government is concerned about the nature of the Iranian regime and how it might evolve, adapt, and promote responsible policy around the region. Iran’s regime type drives its political attitudes, worldview, and foreign policy. This in turn will influence Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and subsequently US policy choices. While different administrations have different theories on Iran, Maloney said that we are living through an interesting moment because we might be on the verge of a wholesale transformation in US policy from Obama to Trump.

The central question remains, what creates positive change in Iran? Maloney expressed skepticism of Obama’s theory that diplomatic engagement could bring long-term moderation and wondered if Trump’s confrontational approach would produce short-term change. Succession remains a key factor in Iran’s evolution, and the country is currently at a critical juncture in choosing its next Supreme Leader.

Khalaji then asked the panelists what the immediate implications of the leaders’ deaths would be for US policy within the next four years. Maloney said it depended on who moves into Khamenei’s position, how quickly that happens, and how people react. Mamouri said that Sistani is important for the US because of his wide influence on Shiite Arabs; without him, American policy might not continue to push for a democratic political system.

Both panelists also discussed the role of Iran’s Shiite militias in the region and how they would impact succession. Mamouri said that while Iraqi security forces could incorporate them, some factions would resist following this pattern and instead turn to Iran. Maloney pointed to the heavy military intermingling between groups as well as the greater respect for the institution of the Supreme Leader’s office as differences between succession today and what occurred in 1989. Khalaji concluded by saying that the sustainability of future leadership is reliant on the military, specifically the IRGC, and whether they can come to a consensus on important issues.

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