The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clues to the identity of Iran’s next supreme leader in the back alleys of a holy city

Portraits of clerics, including Ali al-Sistani, Ali Khamenei and Ruhollah Khomeini in Najaf, Iraq. (Emilienne Malfatto/for The Washington Post)

NAJAF, Iraq — Wedged in the corner of a squat brick building in this holy Muslim city, Sheikh Aladdin al-Jazari's cramped office belies his ties to a powerful patron: the supreme leader of Iran.

The furniture is sparse, and the rooms dimly lit. But Jazari is a key liaison to the office of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leader, whom Jazari says he has met multiple times.

As rumors swirl that Khamenei, 79, is laying the groundwork for his successor after three decades in power, clerics such as Jazari, from his perch next door in the spiritual heart of Shiite Islam, have rare visibility into a transition process known for its secrecy.

He says that Iran’s next supreme ruler may not come from a list of more obvious candidates now circulating among analysts and insiders. He bases his assessment both on experience and, given his proximity to Khamenei’s inner circle, a degree of insight into the future.

“The chosen one, the one who will replace Khamenei — his identity will not be revealed until the process is final,” said Jazari, who wears a black turban signifying his status as a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. He is a senior religious figure in Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iran-backed militia in Iraq that was designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization on March 5.

Jazari recalled the haphazard succession process that followed the death of Iran’s original supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989. “Khamenei himself wasn’t in the spotlight” before he was chosen, the cleric noted over fresh orange juice and tea served by his young aides.

Back then, more-influential clerics saw Khamenei as weak and fudged his modest religious credentials to install a more pliable figure. But since that time, Khamenei has outmaneuvered and outlasted his rivals, boosting Iran’s dominance in the region and keeping the Islamic republic intact.

The upcoming transition could remake Iran, the world’s only Shiite theocracy, and alter the geopolitics of the Middle East, where Iran has been projecting its influence in places such as Syria and Iraq.

But the inner workings of Iran’s Islamic system — which is based on a contested Shiite doctrine known as wilayat al-faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist” — is notoriously opaque. And efforts to determine the next steps have become somewhat of a parlor game in both the Iranian capital Tehran and in Najaf. The names being bandied about to succeed the supreme leader include those of the chief of the judiciary, the head of a powerful advisory council and Khamenei’s own son.

The clergy in Najaf, the primary center of Shiite theology in the world, are for the most part averse to the idea of a supreme religious and political authority and operate independently of the clerical establishment in Iran. But this ancient city, where a maze of alleys rings the gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali, a revered figure in Shiite Islam, is also a hub for Iranian students and clerics who come here to brush up on Shiite doctrine and graduate from its famed seminaries, and that traffic binds Najaf closely to the powerful neighbor.

“Khamenei now is a very strong leader,” said Sheikh Khaled al-Baghdadi, a Najaf cleric clad in a white turban and loose brown robe, seated in an office surrounded on all sides by bookshelves heavy with religious texts. Baghdadi is among those who doubt the theological legitimacy of the supreme leader position but acknowledges that Khamenei has made effective use of the role.

“It’s clear from the size of his rallies and the number of people who attend prayers in Iran that his leadership has been a success,” said Baghdadi, who is close to Iraq’s most senior cleric, and Khamenei rival, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

But even as Khamenei has consolidated power — promoting allies and empowering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with safeguarding the Islamic system — Iran is facing an uncertain period as its economy falters and tensions with the United States rise. At home, rampant corruption and soaring inflation have stunted economic growth and angered ordinary Iranians. Abroad, Iran is confronting a U.S. pressure campaign that seeks to isolate the Islamic republic after the Trump administration last year withdrew from the nuclear deal that Iran negotiated with world powers.

Such instability, experts say, could undermine an otherwise smooth succession. And that has many Iranians ill at ease.

In Iran, “some people are worried about a power vacuum” after Khamenei’s death, said Hadi, 39, an engineer at a construction firm in Tehran owned by the Revolutionary Guard. He requested that his full name not be used so he could speak freely about the succession process.

Hadi says he believes that latent rivalries will emerge among Iran’s political and military elite and that they will “fight for power” during any handover.

According to Iran’s constitution, if Khamenei dies or is otherwise incapacitated, a leadership council would be formed to lead for an interim period. A separate body, known as the Assembly of Experts, is responsible for naming a successor.

Iranian officials have denied rumors that Khamenei started the process to choose a successor, including a recent report in Iranian media that said he ordered the Assembly of Experts to nominate a suitable candidate within three years.

Iran’s succession politics were upended in December, when top contender Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi died, reportedly because of complications from a brain tumor.

Shahroudi, who was born and educated in Najaf, “was known for his deep religious knowledge,” said Emad al-Sharaa, a former clerical student and researcher at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Iraq. His religious bona fides eclipsed Khamenei’s.

Now, a handful of other names are being floated. They include Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; Sadegh Larijani, head of the powerful Expediency Council; and even Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei.

“The next leader should at least have experience leading the judicial or executive branch,” said Mohsen Kadivar, a former theology professor in Iran who now teaches Islamic studies at Duke University.

But because the stakes are so high, analysts say, it is likely that the formal process will be bypassed in favor of more covert negotiations. The Revolutionary Guard in particular will hold powerful sway over the process, experts say.

“The person chosen by Khamenei will be announced . . . after the candidate receives approval from Revolutionary Guard commanders,” Kadivar said.

And, like Jazari in Najaf, Kadivar says the successor’s name “is going to be kept secret for as long as possible.”

Salim reported from Baghdad. Kaveh Nematipour in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Iran’s Rouhani rejects chief diplomat’s resignation, calling it ‘against national interests’

While E.U. tries to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran, Trump administration amps up pressure

As Iraq’s Shiite militias expand their reach, concerns about an ISIS revival grow

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news