People in the know in Iran report that the hottest subject of discussion among Iranian conservative leaders these days is the issue of who is to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is said to be suffering from leukemia. The same individuals report that the person most likely to take Khamenei’s mantle is Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the powerful chief of the Judiciary, whose tenure is scheduled to end within weeks.
At this point, these discussions are not aired publicly. Even in private circles, the conservatives do not speak of the dangers for the establishment attending Khamenei’s transformation into a lame-duck Supreme Leader. Rather, it is supposed to be all about his terminal cancer. Right now, the discussions are at the level of contingencies. But if Iran’s political crisis continues to deteriorate, it is conceivable that a decision will be made.
Shahroudi seems like a perfect fit for the job. At 61, he is at the peak of his powers. A brilliant student of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr of Iraq (who was himself the father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader today of Iraq’s Mahdi Army), Shahroudi is known among his peers for his breadth of religious knowledge and superior intellect. As a political hardliner, he is a dedicated champion of the status quo who has spent the greater part of his life struggling for the establishment or consolidation of Islamic states in Iran and Iraq along the lines set down by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei some forty years ago. Moreover, as his record in the Judiciary amply indicates, Shahroudi is as ill-disposed to radical changes as he is likely to support religious modernization. In short, as a leading jurist, he has all the strengths of Khamenei and few of his weaknesses.
A Political Trajectory
Born of Iranian parentage in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, Shahroudi took up Shia theology early in life, as had been the tradition in his family for many generations. He studied under Grand Ayatollah Sadr and, later, Khomeini in the 1960s. This was a pivotal period for the germination of Shia ideas on politics and governance. Sadr developed the first modern Shia theological underpinnings for an authentically Muslim government, which he followed up on by founding the Iraqi Dawa Party in the early 1960s. Other than Shahroudi, among Sadr’s students at that time were such influential figures as Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon, and Kazem al- Haeri (who is now Muqtada al-Sadr’s spiritual adviser) and Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim of Iraq.
While in exile, Ayatollah Khomeini modified and, in his own mind, perfected Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr’s vision into what is known today as velayat-e-faqi, or theocratic rule by Muslim clerics–as opposed to Sadr’s velayat-ul-umma, which posits only general guidance by the clerics. Shahroudi gradually moved away from his mentor’s position to that of Ayatollah Khomeini’s. In the mid-1970s he was arrested and held for forty days by Saddam Hussein’s secret police because of his political activities. Shahroudi refused to cooperate with his captors, despite severe torture, but one of his brothers confessed on television to all the charges and implicated his comrades in a nefarious plot.