At a recent gathering on March 24 in his city of birth Mashhad, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei emphasized the characteristics of the next president as: “having the strengths which exist today, minus the weaknesses.” In other words, someone who has Ahmadinejad's strengths but not his weaknesses.
At the same gathering, Khamenei also emphasized that he will only have one vote and that no one will know his vote before he casts it. It's difficult to believe that this will be true. In fact, the upcoming presidential elections are likely to decided by Khamenei, in consultation with the IRGC. Their opinion is likely to carry the second highest weight after his. Between them, Khamenei is likely to be the only party that has the last word and veto power.
Such a strategy has much logic. Iran is at a very sensitive juncture. After Khamenei's appointment as supreme leader in 1989, every president who has come to power has fallen out with him at one point or another. This includes Ahmadinejad, whom Khamenei publicly and privately backed more than any president who served under him because he believed that he was a loyal soldier. However, Ahmadinejad proved him wrong. Not only did Ahmadinejad create much infighting within the regime, in May 2011 he even went as far as publicly challenging the decision of the supreme leader. This is a scenario which Khamenei would not want repeated — ever again.
Taking into consideration his numerous difficulties with Ahmadinejad and the challenges that lie ahead such as sanctions, isolation and a worsening economy, in all likelihood, Ayatollah Khamenei's criteria for choosing the next president is likely to be the following (in descending order):
First and foremost, the ideal candidate will have to be an absolute loyalist to the supreme leader. Ayatollah Khamenei will have to be convinced that the next president will know his place: he as the loyal soldier and Ayatollah Khamenei as the commander. The candidate's past will be checked to see if he has ever challenged decisions or policies of the supreme leader. His allies and ambitions will be checked to see if he could challenge the supreme leader in the future.
Good relations with the IRGC. It will be very important for this powerful organization which is increasingly taking over Iran's economy and increasing its political clout that the next candidate cooperates with them and has a positive view of them and their role. During his second term, Ahmadinejad in fact challenged the IRGC on a number of occasions, much to their fury.
Someone whom Mojtaba Khamenei can work with. These days Mojtaba Khamenei who some believe could be a successor to his father Ayatollah Khamenei is increasingly becoming involved in running the affairs of his father as well as the affairs of the office of the supreme leader. There is also the question of his possible grooming (if Khamenei chooses him as his successor). It would be important that the next president will facilitate this process.
Good relations with the Osulgarayan (principalist) movement. This is of notable importance for a number of important reasons. Firstly because majority of Iran's senior politicians today belong to this faction. In fact in all likelihood Iran's next president will come from them. Furthermore majority of parliament members belong to this faction as well. After the public falling out between parliament speaker Larijani and Ahmadinejad in February this year, it will be of much importance that the next president has a good working relationship with the parliament. This is also important for the all- important economic arena. With Iran's economy battered by sanctions, Khamenei would want his new president to work closely with the parliament to tackle important challenges such as unemployment and inflation.
Good working relations with the clerics in Qom, especially Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. Although over the years Qom has lost its political influence, nevertheless, it is important that the next candidate maintains stability there, especially when it comes to working with Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. The latter is close to Ayatollah Khamenei on domestic related matters. His centers are important ideological training centres for commanders of the IRGC and the Baeej.
Looking at the aforementioned criteria, it makes it extremely unlikely that people with whom Khamenei has had problems with will be chosen. This means that reformists, especially Khatami, moderates such as Rafsanjani (if he decides to run) as well Ahmadinejad's right hand man, Esfandiyar Meshai, whom Ahmadinejad has been grooming, have very little chance of being selected by Khamenei.
In terms of whom Khamenei will choose, it's difficult to say at the moment. A lot can happen in two months.
In my opinion, for now, the candidates who have the highest chance are first and foremost former parliamentarian speaker Gholam Ali Hadad Adel who is related to Ayatollah Khamenei (his daughter is married to Khamenei's second son and possible successor Mojtaba). Not only is he family, but also throughout his term as speaker he never has challenged Khamenei's decisions. In fact, he has never challenged Khamenei, not before or after this position. He seems to be the ideal candidate.
Former foreign minister and Khamenei foreign policy adviser Velayati has the second highest chance. He is also close to Khamenei and is a loyalist. His lack of experience in domestic politics is, in my opinion, his biggest disadvantage compared to Hadad Adel.
While Ayatollah Khamenei busies himself with choosing the next president, he will also have his mind elsewhere: with Ahmadinejad. Or, more precisely, how much damage will he cause to his regime, especially if his candidate and relative Meshai is not allowed to run in the elections? Or even if he is allowed to run, he does not win. This is a very important and a valid concern. It's also another reason why, when it comes to choosing Iran's next president this time, unlike 2009, Khamenei will have to get it right.
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst. He teaches the Contemporary Iranian Politics Course at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.