In recent years, the Iranian leadership has been thinking intensively about the question of succession: who will one day replace head of state and religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The now 85-year-old is still considered the most powerful man in the country.

The sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash at the weekend now throws these considerations into disarray – because Raisi was also considered a possible successor to Khamenei. Observers now expect the upcoming presidential election to be at least a dress rehearsal in which the various political factions will demonstrate their strength. An overview of the politicians who are striving to move forward in a country where moderate voices have recently been increasingly marginalized.

Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf – General with great ambitions

Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf’s ambitions for the presidency are no secret. The parliamentary speaker and former general of the powerful Revolutionary Guard began his political career almost 20 years ago as mayor of the capital Tehran. Many residents of the metropolis still remember his efficient approach. But the 62-year-old actually had other plans. Shortly before, he had failed as a candidate in the presidential election, as he did eight years later. He finally withdrew his candidacy in 2017.

Critics of the system and moderate politicians will probably still vividly remember his supporting role in the suppression of the student protests of 1999 in his role as commander at the time. Many experts saw him as the next president even before Raisi’s death. Ghalibaf is considered a conservative opportunist, with support from the technocratic faction of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s elite military force.

However, in this year’s parliamentary elections, Ghalibaf suffered a defeat in Tehran and only entered parliament in fourth place on the list. His arch-conservative competitors are likely to sense a moment of weakness and are already forging alliances in the background to push for the top spot. However, this is unlikely to change Ghalibaf’s desire for power.

Moschtaba Khamenei – the mysterious son

Iran’s political system has combined republican and theocratic traits since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In recent decades, moderate and conservative presidents have alternated in power. There are no free elections: the Guardian Council’s control committee always checks candidates for their ideological suitability. Fundamental criticism of the system will not be tolerated, as the bloody suppression of waves of protests in recent years has shown. Many people in the country have long since stopped believing in changes from within.

Religious leader Khamenei is likely to continue his tough course. There are many rumors and speculations surrounding his political and religious legacy. In this context, experts also speak of the classic succession dilemma. If the ruler appoints a successor, there is a risk that the ruler will lose power and influence during his term in office because other forces are already orienting themselves towards the new leader. However, if no one is appointed, there is a risk of intensified conflicts.

A name that is often mentioned in this context is Moschtaba, Khamenei’s second eldest son. Little is known about the 55-year-old, who shies away from publicity. However, many Iranians believe that he already plays a major role in the background. However, experts believe it is unlikely that he will one day be chosen as a religious leader. The generation of revolutionaries of 1979 had overthrown a monarchy. It is hard to imagine that Khamenei would support a dynastic model for the transfer of power.

Hassan Ruhani – Raisi’s death as an opportunity for “national reconciliation”?

Although Hassan Rouhani is often seen in the West as a moderate reformist politician, he is a conservative in the classic sense. Many people in Iran, especially from the older generation, associate him with hope. It was his government that created a sense of optimism in 2015 with the Vienna nuclear deal. Rouhani also replaced the controversial presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently returned to the public eye, sparking questions about a comeback.

Other moderate politicians such as Mohammed Chatami and former Foreign Minister Mohammed Jawad Zarif have also been increasingly marginalized by the power elite in recent years. The 75-year-old Rouhani was not even allowed to run for the so-called influential expert council, which determines Khamenei’s successor in the event of his death, this year. Many young people now seem to not care about this: they also reject the moderate politicians as men of the system and are demanding serious changes or even an overthrow of the entire Islamic system of rule.

Whoever is ultimately elected president or succeeds the religious leader will all need the support of the powerful Revolutionary Guards. They are not only considered the central military power in Iran, but also an economic empire, with holdings in hotel chains, mobile phone companies and airlines, among others. Given the few conservative options for Iran’s government, some well-informed circles in Tehran say that a moderate candidate may be allowed to run in the presidential election at the end of June – in the spirit of “national reconciliation”.