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Iran’s generational leadership change

  • Mehrzad Boroujerdi

    Vice Provost and Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education, Missouri University of Science and Technology

    عميد كلية الآداب والعلوم والتربية ، جامعة ميسوري للعلوم والتكنولوجيا

Many of the recent discussions about Iran’s generational leadership changes have been speculative, anecdotal and centred on particular personalities. This paper attempts to broaden that analysis, and is based on a decades-long study of more than 2,500 members of the Iranian political elite.1 Rooted in empirical data, the paper provides an analysis of the existing generation of leaders and offers insights about the composition, traits and beliefs of the political elite that is rising to replace them.2 Discernible trends among the existing political elite appear to be that its members are increasing in age, are more Iran-educated, have fewer pre-revolutionary credentials, are becoming less clerical, and increasingly include veterans of the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88) and former members of the Revolutionary Guards.

Table 1 shows the ‘greying’ of Iran’s current political elite. As the median age of the population has risen so has the median age of every group of important political actors. Iran is now a country with a median population age of 32, led by an 84-year-old Supreme Leader and by men in their sixties – a fact that sheds some light on the political unrest the country is experiencing.3

Figure 1 shows that most power-holders experienced the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when they were in their late teens or early twenties. The fact that 32 per cent of the current political elite are aged 71 years and older (and indeed 74 per cent are 61 years and over) means that many of these politicians will retire or pass away in the next five to ten years.4 They will be replaced by a generation who were very young at the time of the revolution or who had not yet been born.

Data gathered by the author for the study indicate that over the past four decades only 9 per cent (241 out of 2,579) of individuals who have held high-level political positions were political prisoners before 1979. Indeed, Table 2 shows that the percentage of that elite who possess the revolutionary credentials of having spent time behind bars before 1979 has dropped precipitously. This is most obvious among MPs and cabinet ministers but is also discernible among members of the Guardian Council, Expert Assembly and the Expediency Council.

Table 3 indicates that except for the Experts Assembly, which by law must be made up entirely of clergymen, and the Guardian Council where half of the members must be clerics, the percentage of clerics has dropped in all important political posts. This relates to the ‘electability’ problems they face in parliamentary elections,5 and their less-than-stellar track records of being appointed to cabinet posts6 or the Expediency Council. It is important to remember that overall, clerics make up 26 per cent (658 out of 2,579) of important political office-holders, which is a relatively low percentage.

Table 4 makes clear how the political influence of the veterans of the Iran–Iraq War has risen over the past four decades7 and how they are over-represented in the cabinet and the Expediency Council.8 The formative experience of taking part in a war, with the sacrifices, bonding and resourcefulness that brings, has shaped the security and political outlook of these men, who mostly came from rural areas.

Table 5 shows that, as with veterans, the percentage of former members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has also increased in all political institutions. For example, of the 296 individuals who have served as ministers, 83 (28 per cent) had served in the Revolutionary Guards. The Parliament has become a popular staging arena for entry into the ranks of the political elite for those wishing to trade their uniforms for suits. Former guardsmen have even made inroads into such clerically dominated institutions as the Guardian Council and the Experts Assembly. The rise of veterans and IRGC members juxtaposed with the decline of clerics in key positions could indicate an incremental handover of power to a new and different group of political players. The data also show that Ayatollah Khamenei is appointing more former guardsmen to the Expediency Council.

Reflections on the next generation

The current generation of political elites shared important traits that enabled them to succeed in the revolutionary state. It is reasonable to assume that the emerging generation will have different normative commitments, as well as different life experiences due to their coming of age during the turbulent Iranian theocracy. This makes the upcoming shift in the composition of the elites consequential. Developing a taxonomy of the attributes, institutions and networks that will shape the rising generation of political elites will be of significant value. A few preliminary reflections include:

1. Authoritarian systems demand the loyalty of conformist functionaries who believe that being part of the inner sanctum enables them to enjoy benefits from state apparatuses and patronage to the fullest extent. Iranian apparatchiks who are rising through the ranks of the existing system recognize that economic fortune, political fame and legal leniency are reserved for those who have managed to situate themselves in the ever-tightening circle of trust formed around the Supreme Leader and other top leaders. The most politically inclined yet submissive disciples of the ayatollahs have managed to ‘progress’ within Iran’s gargantuan bureaucracy more than their apolitical or defiant peers, who may have better jurisprudential credentials. The history of the Islamic Republic has demonstrated time and again that loyalty is revocable in light of performance. The aspiring elite have noted that the regime rewards chameleon-like functionaries who ‘stay in their lanes’, who do not speak truth to power, and do not dare to deviate from the official ‘party line’.9 Factionalism and intra-institutional rivalries also ensure that ascending politicians can see their political fortunes diminished and they themselves relegated to minor functionaries.

2. Family ties and nepotism have propelled the political careers of many members of the current political class. While clerical and merchant families have long inter-married, nowadays more and more IRGC officials are becoming sons-in-law of clerics. Yet, the study data reveal that ancestral ties among the political elite are more important than marriage ties for opening ‘doors’ – and this is likely to remain the golden key for the rising elite.10

3. In terms of education, the study research indicates that only 11 per cent (281 out of the 2,579) of the current political elite of the Islamic Republic have studied outside Iran. 11Their favourite destinations for study in order of preference have been the United States, Western Europe, Middle East,12 Asia, Eastern Europe and Australia. The percentage of foreign-educated members of the emerging political elite is likely to be lower due to the host of obstacles they face in going abroad. In addition, the need to educate and train revolutionary men and women forced the Islamic Republic to form new ‘cadre training schools’ like Imam Sadeq University,13 Imam Hossein University, Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute,14 and the University of Judicial Sciences and Administrative Services. Many of the rising elite are nowadays either instructors or recent graduates of these highly ideological institutions. It is also important to keep in mind that while the pre-1979 generation mainly pursued technocratic expertise in disciplines like engineering and medicine, there is more disciplinary diversity among the younger generation, who have pursued degrees in public administration, political science and law.

4. As more time passes since the 1979 Revolution and the Iran–Iraq War, the importance of having been a political prisoner before the revolution or a war veteran will decline dramatically. The rising political elite therefore needs to articulate new credentials as revolutionaries.15 However, it is unlikely that the percentage of IRGC members will plateau.

5. It is likely that clerics will seek more appointed than elected offices in the coming years due both to the challenge of their personal ‘electability’ and the perks – legal and illegal – of holding many appointed offices (i.e., non-transparency, legal protection, opportunities for corruption).

In terms of assessing both the domestic and foreign political decision-making of the Islamic Republic in the near future, it is important to understand whether the rising elite will be ‘ideology-light technocrats’ or hardcore ‘believers-cum-politicians’. This question can best be addressed by carefully examining the individuals’ anthropological backgrounds, educational careers, the kind of Islam preached and practised, their goals for Iran, and the means they are willing to employ to reach these goals. A thorough study is needed to give insights into the degree of militancy to expect from this new generation of leaders and the extent to which they will or will not be ready to choose pragmatism over ideology in policymaking. A confluence of various factors, including massive corruption and greater recognition of the existing political class’s shortcomings and limitations, may gradually tip the scale in favour of ideology-light technocrats over the next decade (particularly after the demise of the current Supreme Leader). The incipient generation of elites has experienced the fast march of demographics, the costs of international isolation, the futility of sloganeering, the ineptitude and mistake-prone style of statecraft of the managerial class, the rising power of the IRGC, the massive protests of 2009 and 2022, and the increasing securitization of political life. To secure their own political futures, they must grapple with internal tyranny, atavistic policymaking, maladroit foreign relations and social implosion.

Furthermore, the more far-sighted among the upcoming elite recognize that the power of the state vis-à-vis society has diminished thanks to higher literacy, urbanization, exposure to foreign and expatriate media, and the ubiquity of social media. They know that broad parts of the public continue to see the political class as unaccountable and indifferent. In other words, despite not dominating the public discourse, the state is maintaining its monopoly of public life through coercion. As the 2022 unrest has demonstrated, the state’s ability to win over and mobilize the masses has taken a serious blow after having treated citizens as superfluous for so long. Managing the cleavage between state and public is perhaps the most formidable challenge facing the rising elite. Aspiring denizens of high office can be expected to cultivate this awareness, not just because of their own experiences and education but also as a tactical move.

Yet the new class of Iranian politicians has risen from an Islamist milieu and seems so far to have essentially accepted the existing ‘rules of engagement’, which consist of having multiple nodes of power, maintaining a rather weak political party infrastructure, obeying censorship rules, and accepting an opaque decision-making process. In other words, they have learned from their antediluvian predecessors that being an insider demands that you obey the rules of the game. Being a courtier means learning that genuflection to the Supreme Leader is a must; that the utopian dreams of the Islamic Republic are not questioned nor is the drudgery of revolutionary mores and pretensions; and that lowering one’s expectations and voice is valued over demonstrating flamboyant courage for reform. There is scant evidence at this point that the next generation is preparing to make a decisive break with the current generation’s practices. Alas, what this means is that despite the demographic shift, the rising elite will most likely be ill-prepared to deal with the multi-pronged challenges facing the country.

This research is supported by the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform (PeaceRep), funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for the benefit of developing countries. The information and views set out in this publication are those of the authors. Nothing herein constitutes the views of FCDO. Any use of this work should acknowledge the authors and the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform.

About PeaceRep

PeaceRep is a research consortium based at the University of Edinburgh. Our research is rethinking peace and transition processes in the light of changing conflict dynamics, changing demands of inclusion and changes in patterns of global intervention in conflict and peace/mediation/transition management processes.

Consortium members include: Conciliation Resources, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University, Dialectiq, Edinburgh Law School, International IDEA, LSE Conflict and Civicness Research Group, LSE Middle East Centre, Queens University Belfast, University of St Andrews, University of Stirling, and the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. PeaceRep is funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), UK.

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School of Law, University of Edinburgh, Old College, South Bridge, EH8 9YL


[1] Boroujerdi, M. and Rahimkhani, K. (2018), Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook, Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, https://irandataportal.syr.edu/postrevolutionary-iran-a-political-handbook 

[2] As of the end of February 2023, the study database contains information on 2,579 individuals who have served in top political posts. This includes 1,996 members of parliament, 296 cabinet ministers, 277 members of the Assembly of Religious Experts, 66 members of the Expediency Council, 52 members of the Guardian Council, and a host of other positions. Naturally there is some overlap as individuals have moved from one position to another (i.e., from parliament to cabinet).

[3] It is also important to remember that, according to the CIA World Factbook, 86.4 per cent of Iran’s population is below the age of 55 and 13.6 per cent are above 55. However, Figure 1 shows that only 17 per cent of the political elite are below 55 while 83 per cent are above 55.

[4] According to the CIA World Factbook, life expectancy for Iran in 2022 was 75 years.

[5] As Table 3 shows, the percentage of clerics in the Iranian parliament has dropped from 52 per cent in 1980 to 11 per cent in 2020. This relates to (a) the rise of an anti-clerical sentiment in the country and (b) a desire on the part of many clerics to opt for appointed rather than elected positions to avoid the public scrutiny that comes with elected positions.

[6] Cabinet posts often require technocratic expertise related to the work of that ministry which many clerics who have only undergone seminary education do not possess. Similarly, the Expediency Council has also been increasingly packed with lay individuals with technocratic expertise as they try to adjudicate highly complex issues involving the economy, domestic politics or international affairs.

[7] The drop in the percentage of cabinet ministers from 47 per cent in 2010 to 30 per cent in 2020 was linked to the fact that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had a disproportionally high percentage of veterans during his eight years in office (2005–2013). President Ebrahim Raisi’s current cabinet has 33 per cent veterans in its ranks.

[8] The 21 per cent figure for all elites who have been veterans of the Iran–Iraq War is even more striking considering that the clerical elite were exempted from serving in the war on account of their religious positions. As such, if the 658 clerics are excluded from the 2,579 denominator of all elite, the percentage for veterans is even higher.

[9] For example, consider the career of individuals like Hasan Habibi (1937–2013) who served in eight cabinets, six rounds of the Expediency Council, three rounds of the Guardian Council, and one round in the parliament; or Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari (b. 1954) who served in three cabinets, five rounds of the Expediency Council, four rounds of parliament and one round of the Assembly of Experts.

[10] Some of the more important political families of the Islamic Republic are the Khomeinis, Khameneis, Hashemi-Rafsanjanis, Khatamis, Larijanis, Kharazis, Dastgheybs, Motahharis, and Nateq-Nuris. Despite their political influence, these families do experience internal divisions. For detailed information on each family, see: Boroujerdi and Rahimkhani (2018), Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook, pp. 796–99.

[11] The percentage of foreign-educated ministers who have served in the 15 cabinets since 1979, however, stands at 30 per cent.

[12] Many of those educated in the Middle East were clerics who underwent religious training in seminaries in Iraq.

[13] Imam Sadeq University (ISU) was established in 1983 by Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani (1931–2014) based on the confiscated assets of the Tehran Graduate School of Management. The curriculum of the university combines modern humanities and social sciences (i.e., economics, political science, law, management, education) with religious instruction. It has more than 1,400 students and 150 faculty and staff. ISU graduates often go on to occupy important political or cultural posts.

[14] This well-funded institute was founded in 1995 by the conservative Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi (1935–2021) for advanced lay and clerical students. The institute awards degrees and sponsors research and translation projects that conform to its ideologically conservative viewpoint.

[15] These new credentials could include membership of assemblies, bureaux, centres, councils, foundations, headquarters and organizations formed after the revolution. For a partial list of such outfits, see: Boroujerdi and Rahimkhani (2018), Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook, pp. 34–36.