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

Among analysts of Iranian affairs, there is little disagreement that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the clerical establishment are Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's most significant instruments of power. Yet trying to determine which of the two of them exerts a more decisive influence on the regime has frequently led to disputes or confusion.

In this context, it is important to evaluate the relative influence and power of these two entities throughout the Khamenei era and beyond — assuming the continuity of the Islamic Republic. The central question is what potential changes might occur to their position and standing after the conclusion of Khamenei's leadership.

The power dynamics of the clergy

Throughout Ayatollah Khamenei's rule the military’s influence has continuously increased in comparison to that of the clergy. At the same time, despite the government's significant support for religious institutions, the influence of Shi’ite seminaries and religious authorities in society and politics has declined in recent decades.

Nonetheless, it would be a serious oversight to equate the influence of the "religious authorities" in Iran with that of the "clergy aligned with the leader." To understand the extent of the latter's authority, it's useful to consider the positions held by clerical appointees of Ayatollah Khamenei within the regime. These clerics predominantly occupy senior positions in the judiciary, such as the heads of the judiciary and the special clerical court. The heads of the Supreme Court and the general inspectorate as well as the attorney general are also clerics appointed by the chief of the judiciary, making them indirect appointees of the supreme leader.

Six out of the twelve members on the Guardian Council are Shi’ite jurists appointed by the supreme leader, with the other six being legal scholars chosen by parliament from among those pre-selected by the head of the judiciary. The Guardian Council is tasked with approving parliamentary legislation, as well as vetting candidates for legislative and presidential elections, along with those for the Assembly of Experts. In the Assembly of Experts, which is in charge of appointing the next supreme leader, all members are Shi’ite jurists. While on paper the Assembly is also tasked with overseeing the supreme leader's performance, in practice it does not do so.

Additionally, Ayatollah Khamenei has clerical representatives in all of Iran's 31 provinces, most of whom lead governmental Friday prayer ceremonies in the provincial capitals. The authority exercised by these representatives typically surpasses that of the provincial governors. The same holds true for the Friday prayer imams in Iranian cities: Appointed by Khamenei’s representatives in their respective provinces, their authority usually exceeds that of other city officials. All of these imams are under the supervision of the Policymaking Council of Friday Prayer Imams, a body whose chairman and all of its members are appointed by the supreme leader. The latter also has dozens of clerical representatives within Iran's armed forces and affiliated organizations, whose roles vary.

In addition to all of the above, there are other high-ranking roles that have consistently been held by clerical appointees chosen by the supreme leader, even though religious credentials are not a legal requirement. For instance, the head of the Expediency Discernment Council, according to the constitution, is appointed by the supreme leader, though the appointee is not necessarily required to be a cleric. However, since its establishment in 1988, its heads have always been clerics. The Expediency Discernment Council is tasked with formulating the macro policies of the Iranian regime, subject to the final approval of the supreme leader. It also has the authority to make final decisions regarding legislation approved by parliament but rejected by the Guardian Council.

Apart from clerics appointed by the supreme leader to fill high-ranking positions, tens of thousands of others serve in lower-ranking roles under the supervision of the supreme leader’s clerical appointees. For instance, all mosques in Iran require a cleric to serve as the prayer imam, all of whom are appointed by the Headquarters of Prayer Presenting, which operates under the Supreme Leader’s Office.

Most government positions held by clerics are designated for them under Iranian law or in the Islamic Republic’s constitution. The constitution also stipulates that being a member of the clergy is a prerequisite for the position of supreme leader. Under such circumstances, it can be expected that after Ayatollah Khamenei, hundreds of clerical appointees of the next supreme leader will have a key presence in government institutions. However, this does not imply that their share of power in comparison to the IRGC will be as significant as it has been during Khamenei's era.

The power dynamics of the IRGC

The IRGC is both the most powerful military-security institution and the largest economic cartel in Iran. Its influence has increased notably during the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei, in large part due to its growing interventions across the region, which underscore its strategic significance for the regime.

Despite its privileged status, it is crucial to note that the IRGC operates under the strict control of the supreme leader. He personally appoints its commander-in-chief, the deputy commander-in-chief, the deputy coordinator, the head of the IRGC’s Strategic Center, and the head of its Cultural and Social Base (responsible for "soft warfare"). Additionally, the supreme leader appoints the commanders of the IRGC’s Ground Force, Aerospace (missile) Force, and Naval Force, as well as the commander of the Quds Force (its clandestine foreign operations division), the head of the Basij paramilitary organization, and the commander of the IRGC counterintelligence organization.

Simultaneously, Ayatollah Khamenei exercises precise control well beyond the IRGC through key appointments within the armed forces, including high-ranking officials in the Artesh (Iran’s regular army) and the Ministry of Defense, underscoring the broad spectrum of his influence.

A significant part of Khamenei’s control over the IRGC is carried out through the appointment of loyal clerics. The most influential of these is the representative of the supreme leader in the IRGC, who reports directly to Khamenei rather than the IRGC’s commander-in-chief. According to the IRGC's charter, the representative of the supreme leader oversees all decisions made by commanders to ensure their alignment with ideological principles and the supreme leader’s directives. It is worth noting that the supreme leader, besides appointing the heads of various forces and organizations of the IRGC, also appoints clerical representatives to all of these bodies, including to the Ground ForceNaval ForceAerospace (missile) Force, and the Quds Force, as well as to the Basij, the counterintelligence service, and all of the IRGC’s provincial corps.

The supreme leader’s representative heads up a sizable organization, known as the Office of the Supreme Leader's Representative in the IRGC, comprising various deputies. One of them is the political affairs deputy, who oversees the IRGC’s Political Bureau. This bureau directly handles political matters and guides IRGC personnel, even in confronting state officials accused of disobedience to the supreme leader.

The IRGC, the clergy, or the supreme leader?

It is evident that both the IRGC and the clergy, each in their respective ways, wield determinative influence within the Iranian regime. However, for a variety of reasons, the IRGC arguably holds the upper hand, largely due to its undeniable military-security strength. For around two decades, the IRGC has employed its military-security power extensively, using it to counter the external adversaries of the Islamic Republic across the region. It has also used its capabilities closer to home to suppress internal dissent, ranging from street protesters to opposition figures and even political officials challenging the supreme leader. Throughout Ayatollah Khamenei's leadership, the IRGC has consistently engaged in confrontations with clerics perceived as disloyal. Moving forward, in a post-Khamenei era it would be simplistic to assume that the Revolutionary Guards would abstain from using their power against disloyal clerics, irrespective of their rank and position.

Another relative advantage of the IRGC over the clergy lies in its significantly more cohesive organizational structure. While the supreme leader’s clerical appointees wield considerable power across dozens of institutions, they are not part of a unified structure. In contrast, despite internal differences, IRGC commanders ultimately belong to a single organization, equipped with weapons, funds, media, and prisons, enabling them to effectively influence governmental dynamics.

As long as Khamenei remains in power, the IRGC serves as the executor of his policies. It has received unwavering support from the supreme leader under both Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, making it increasingly influential and powerful. In exchange, the IRGC has remained unswervingly loyal, confronting their adversaries and enemies without hesitation.

Moving forward, should the Islamic Republic persist, it will be imperative for both the IRGC and the next supreme leader to uphold unity. However, it is foreseeable that under Khamenei’s successor, the Revolutionary Guards will potentially strengthen their position even further compared to the Khamenei era. It can be expected that the IRGC's relative dependence on the supreme leader will decrease during the rule of his successor, while the supreme leader's reliance on this military institution is likely to increase.

This reliance is grounded in the fact that all those identified as potential candidates for Ayatollah Khamenei's succession, including figures like Mojtaba Khamenei, Ebrahim Raisi, and certain less prominent clerics, all occupy positions considerably lower in stature than he does. These individuals, in addition to their lack of popularity among the public, face significant criticism and have limited credibility among the regime’s supporters. Consequently, to consolidate their power, they will have no choice but to rely on the IRGC, which, after the supreme leader's death, will continue to maintain its military, security, economic, and political power.

To better understand the importance of this issue, it is essential to recall the circumstances surrounding Khamenei's own rise to leadership. During that process, he held a much lower position compared to Khomeini, with many clerics not regarding him a qualified religious leader. Nevertheless, despite his lower religious stature, Khamenei enjoyed significant political support from government officials and influential personalities. Even Khamenei’s staunchest critics in later years mostly did not oppose him when he assumed leadership in 1989.

In contrast, the next leader of Iran, whoever he may be, will assume power in a much more turbulent environment than Khamenei did. This unstable situation will inevitably lead the IRGC to play a more decisive role in the transition of power to the next supreme leader.

This role will gain even greater significance if the transition period coincides with crises stemming from public protests or external confrontations. In such a situation, the government's foremost priority will be to safeguard the Islamic Republic against any potential overthrow. This emphasis will doubtless enhance the importance of the IRGC as the military-security guarantor of the Islamic Republic, thereby further consolidating its influence within the Iranian regime.


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

Photo by Iranian Leader Press Office/Anadolu via Getty Images

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