The changes he is making relate to the future of the Islamic Republic and aim to guarantee that when he is gone, his loyal supporters will remain in control.
One of his first moves has been to raise the political profile of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force. He was seen sitting beside the supreme leader when Syrian President Bashar Assad paid an unexpected visit to Tehran two weeks ago. When Assad then met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Soleimani was once again present, but Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was nowhere to be seen. Zarif resigned soon after, sparking speculation that he did so in protest because he was not informed of Assad’s visit or invited to the meeting with Rouhani. The president refused to accept the resignation, and Soleimani later stated that Zarif remains the main person in charge of foreign policy in Iran.
What the unprecedented series of events showed to the world is that while Zarif is Iran’s foreign minister with regards to the EU and Western issues, Soleimani is calling the shots when it comes to Arab and regional affairs.
Gen. Ismail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, admitted that the Quds Force brought Assad to Tehran. “Those who need to know, they knew of Mr. Assad’s trip to Iran and those who should not be aware, did not know. It was a sensitive job,” he said .
Zarif, therefore, was not trusted with the information; in other words, it was not necessary for him to know about such regional matters, as they do not concern him. The chilling statement by Ghaani made it clear that the government has no role to play in Iran’s regional policies.
In another important move, Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raisi Iran’s chief justice, while the former head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, became head of the Expediency Discernment Council. Both men are notorious for their extremist views, close to the Revolutionary Guards, and highly trusted by the supreme leader.
These adjustments might be followed by even bigger changes. The next presidential election, in 2021, is one of the most important ever held in Iran, given the age of the 79-year-old supreme leader and the possibility that discussions about a successor might begin soon.
The recent changes at the judiciary and the Expediency Council, and the activities of the Revolutionary Guards in bringing Assad to Tehran without bothering to inform Zarif, suggest that the grip on Iran of the militants and hardliners is tightening. The Islamic Republic appears to be preparing to adopt a different vision and policy after the next US presidential election in 2020.