This article is the third in an ongoing series exploring the question of succession in the Islamic Republic and the eventual move to a post-Khamenei era.

In discussions on Iran’s future in a post-Khamenei era, analysts often focus on the roles of the Assembly of Experts, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the clergy. But beyond these entities there is another crucial player in the transition to a new supreme leader, one that is often overlooked. That player is the inner circle surrounding Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, primarily operating within the framework of the Office of the Supreme Leader.

Understanding the role of the supreme leader’s office in the transition period is crucial, especially given that there is no guarantee that the next supreme leader will favor influential figures from Khamenei's inner circle. In such a scenario, these figures might easily be ousted from their prominent positions, mirroring the fate of many of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's associates after his passing. During that period, Khomeini's inner circle, mainly affiliated with the left-leaning religious faction, found themselves marginalized after Khamenei assumed power, given his closer ties to the right-wing religious faction. The most prominent individual among those marginalized was Ahmad Khomeini, the son of the former supreme leader.

In the memoirs of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the first president during Khamenei's rule, there are several references to Ahmad Khomeini's dissatisfaction with being sidelined after his father's death. Ahmad Khomeini passed away in 1995, and during Mohammad Khatami's presidency (1997-2005), some media outlets closely affiliated with Khatami claimed that he was assassinated by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.

There is also a possibility that the fate of Ayatollah Khamenei's entourage may differ from that of the previous supreme leader's. While Khamenei’s successor may choose to retain some of his predecessor’s associates in sensitive positions, the transition to a new era could naturally result in them losing their influence. Consequently, many of these influential government figures are concerned about their future.

The power of the supreme leader’s office

According to the Islamic Republic’s constitution and legislation, the supreme leader controls many powerful political, economic, security, military, and cultural organizations. This control is facilitated through Khamenei's appointees in dozens of government institutions, as well as the vast administrative structures of the supreme leader’s office, which employs a staff of thousands.

The Office of the Supreme Leader comprises various deputies, such as, among others, the supervision and audit deputy (responsible for exercising financial control of government entities), the international affairs deputy (managing relations with international institutions under the supreme leader's purview), and the special affairs deputy (handling communication between the supreme leader and government officials).

Additionally, the supreme leader’s office includes several bureaus, such as the Special Inspectorate Bureau (tasked with monitoring the performance of government entities), the Military Bureau (managing the supreme leader’s communication with the armed forces), the Counter Intelligence Policy-making Bureau (controlling counter intelligence branches of the armed forces), and the Economic Investigations Bureau (investigating economic institutions, especially those under the supreme leader's supervision).

Another aspect of the office’s power stems from its direct connection with the supreme leader, enabling it to influence his decisions and relationships with government officials. While Ayatollah Khamenei receives reports from various organizations and holds meetings with a variety of officials, he relies on his office’s briefings regarding the content of official reports. The office is also tasked with organizing meetings between Khamenei and state officials, as well as managing his public appearances.

Given the significant role of the office in shaping Khamenei’s decisions, it is conceivable that its authorities may utilize their influence to strengthen or weaken the positions of potential candidates for the leadership succession. This influence is particularly crucial as Khamenei’s preferences could significantly help or hinder the chances of the pending candidates. While Khamenei's view on his successor may not be publicly declared, it is unlikely that he would remain indifferent on this crucial subject, and the expectation is that his opinion will be somehow recorded prior to his death.

For a more comprehensive understanding of the potential influence of the supreme leader's entourage on the process of selecting his successor, it would be beneficial to recall what happened during Khomeini’s era. In 1985, the Assembly of Experts selected Hossein-Ali Montazeri as his successor. Accounts published by Montazeri and his associates suggest that Ahmad Khomeini, the most influential figure within the supreme leader’s office, played an effective role in obstructing Montazeri's succession. According to Ayatollah Montazeri’s memoirs, in the final year of Khomeini's life when differences between the supreme leader and his designated successor escalated, the office restricted Montazeri's direct contact or conversations with Khomeini.

In fact, as Khomeini’s health declined and his temper flared, the influence of his son and the office over his communications with others increased significantly. This influence had a decisive impact on key decisions, particularly the dismissal of Montazeri from his position in March 1989 — a decision that laid the groundwork for the unexpected rise of Khamenei to the supreme leadership a few months later.

Infighting within the supreme leader’s office

One significant difference between the offices of Khomeini and Khamenei lies in their size. While the former had a few dozen employees, the latter has expanded to include thousands of personnel. In fact, over time, Khamenei’s office has transformed into a massive government institution with various deputies and bureaus. In Khomeini’s office, key decisions were made by Ahmad Khomeini and routine tasks were supervised by Mohammad Reza Tavassoli, its administrative head. Khamenei's office, by contrast, has dozens of senior and mid-level managers with varying degrees of power and responsibility.

It is not surprising that within such a large organization, managers have been engaged in various disputes and power struggles. This phenomenon has occasionally made headlines and resulted in the removal of some of the office’s top managers.

A notable example is that of Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, the principal conservative candidate in the 1997 presidential election and the influential head of the office’s Special Inspectorate Bureau for 29 years. During the 2009 presidential election, he clashed with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was then fully supported by Ayatollah Khamenei. This conflict resulted in Nategh-Nouri losing his position. His influence weakened further due to his close relationship with Hassan Rouhani during the latter’s presidency, leading to his inevitable resignation from the supreme leader's office in 2017.

During Ahmadinejad's presidency, even Asghar Mir-Hejazi, the office’s highly influential security deputy, found himself sidelined for several years. This reportedly happened at a time when Ahmadinejad still enjoyed full support from Ayatollah Khamenei, and Vahid Haghanian — a staunch supporter of Ahmadinejad — became the key figure in the supreme leader's office. Haghanian was later introduced as the deputy for special affairs, a role that did not previously exist.

However, Haghanian lost his position in the aftermath of the 2021 presidential election, which saw the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. Following the election, Haghanian indirectly criticized the Guardian Council for disqualifying numerous presidential candidates, implying that the decline in voter participation was a direct result. This statement prompted a strong reaction from some media outlets affiliated with both the IRGC and certain managers in the supreme leader's office. They warned that the Islamic Republic’s enemies might attribute Haghanian's remarks to the supreme leader's office to undermine President Ebrahim Raisi's victory.

Afterward, Haghanian's absence from public sessions with Ayatollah Khamenei drew media attention. When he finally appeared in a meeting with state officials, government media referred to him as the executive advisor to the supreme leader, indicating he had been removed from his position as deputy for special affairs.

A few months ago, Haghanian made headlines once again, this time for another subject related to Raisi. Haghanian was quoted as saying that in 2017, Raisi had consulted him about his chances of becoming the next supreme leader. In response to Haghanian's denial of the report, the source that leaked the information emphasized that they possessed an audio file of his remarks and could release it.

Finally, some of the disputes within the supreme leader's office are directly or indirectly related to Mojtaba Khamenei, his son, who evidently holds significant influence within the office. In the past 15 years, various political figures from different factions have hinted at Mojtaba Khamenei's ambitions to succeed his father. One of the most detailed revelations came from Mohammad Sarafraz, the former head of the state-run Iranian Radio-Television network. His disclosure was significant because heads of the network are appointed directly by the supreme leader and are considered his trusted associates.

In late 2022, Sarafraz, through video releases, revealed Mojtaba Khamenei's desire to assume leadership after his father. Sarafraz also disclosed Mojtaba Khamenei's membership in a secret five-member committee tasked with managing sensitive political and security projects by the supreme leader. Sarafraz, who was himself a member of this committee, identified another member as Hossein Taeb, the former head of the IRGC’s intelligence agency. According to Sarafraz, Taeb regularly provided Mojtaba Khamenei with intelligence gathered through espionage, including information about the private lives of political figures, to be used to wield political influence. Another reported member of the committee was Hossein Fadaei, who later assumed the position of the head of the office’s Special Inspectorate Bureau following Nategh-Nouri's resignation.

In 2019, Sarafraz published a controversial book on the internet, providing details about a series of internal conflicts within the supreme leader's office. According to the book, during his tenure as the head of the Islamic Republic’s Radio-Television network, he had disagreements with Mojtaba Khamenei and Taeb, who eventually compelled him to resign from his position in 2017.

Taeb, in turn, resigned from his position as head of the IRGC’s intelligence agency in May 2022. Some media outlets attributed this to the agency’s failures in connection with Israel. It remains unclear whether Taeb's dismissal, as a powerful ally of Mojtaba Khamenei, will affect Mojtaba's position.

Is the influence of the supreme leader's office increasing?

As long as Khamenei remains in stable health, he will continue to carry out his duties as the highest authority in the Islamic Republic. However, if there is a deterioration in his physical or mental condition, his reliance on the office for receiving information and communicating with government officials will intensify.

This situation might be similar to what occurred in the last months of Ayatollah Khomeini's life. At that time, as Khomeini’s physical weakness increased and his fatigue grew, he devoted much less time to conversations with other officials or following up on government issues. Consequently, the role of his office in influencing his decisions increased in a dramatic and unprecedented fashion.

As Khamenei's physical condition deteriorates, concerns will naturally grow among his entourage and influential figures within the supreme leader's office about the future. Under these circumstances, it is anticipated that as Khamenei ages, his associates will increasingly endeavor to leverage their positions to influence power dynamics in their favor and promote their preferred candidate for succession. At the same time, it is conceivable that, during this period, groups interested in influencing the selection of the next supreme leader will seek to gain the support of influential figures within the office to achieve their goals.

All of this implies that if the Islamic Republic continues to govern Iran, in the last years of Khamenei’s rule the Office of the Supreme Leader will likely evolve into a significant behind-the-scenes actor wielding substantial influence over the contours of the post-Khamenei era.


Marie Abdi is an Iranian political researcher focusing on the Islamic Republic's domestic and regional strategies.

Photo by Iranian Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images

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