Key point: It is only a matter of time before the Supreme Leader dies.
Change is coming to Iran, but it has nothing to do with either the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also called the Iran Deal) or the Trump administration’s sanctions regime. Indeed, while U.S. policymakers debate cooption and coercion at the best strategies to change Iran’s behavior, neither the Trump administration nor its opposition is prepared for the regime change Iran faces: The death of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The supreme leader is the ultimate power in Iran. Constitutionally, he is the commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces. Theologically, he is also nayeb-e Imam (deputy of the Messiah). While diplomats focus on Iran’s elected leaders and their appointees—President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, for example—the supreme leader monopolizes all substantive decisions. He rules for life.
Khamenei’s life is nearing an end. In 2014, Khamenei had surgery for prostate cancer. Authorities used Khamenei’s account to tweet out a photo of the supreme leader in the hospital, likely an attempt to begin preparing the Iranian public for the inevitable. Khamenei recovered, but today he is 79 years old, and old age is taking its toll. So too is the legacy of a 1981 assassination attempt. When Khamenei dies—whether in a month, a year, or five years, the Islamic Republic will face an unprecedented crisis.
Iran’s Looming Succession Crisis