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What Happens When Putin and Khamenei Die?

The U.S. should prepare now for the crises that will inevitably follow the deaths of hostile dictators.
June 24, 2021
What Happens When Putin and Khamenei Die?
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meeting with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) in Tehran, 16 October 2007. (Photo by MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Shah had one thing in common: They caught everybody by surprise, and nobody was prepared for what came next. In both cases, the United States was so caught up in managing the status quo that it failed to effect desirable outcomes. For decades, the world has been regretting it.

Is change awaiting Russia and Iran? Perhaps. Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei are 68 and 82, respectively, and the latter is reportedly battling cancer. Sooner or later, they will both be dead, and neither has a clear successor. In Russia’s case, Putin is so hostile to discussing the succession issue that many speculate that he fired his longtime confidant and counselor, Vladislav Surkov, for bringing up the issue of succession.

Russia and Iran are unlike China, which has institutionalized succession traditions and mechanisms for the post-Xi-Jinping era. Neither Russia nor Iran is like North Korea, where all power is consolidated in one man. Instead, Putin and Khamenei share and balance power among an array of institutions, interests, and oligarchs. They are the keystones that keep the institutions of power propped up, and they rely on charismatic legitimacy to keep their regimes intact. Because there is no clear principle for how their successors will be chosen, their regimes will be immensely vulnerable—and likely riven with internal competition that could turn violent—until someone new can consolidate power. The United States should plan for both eventualities and the consequent friction among the power brokers.

Almost all Russian leaders die in office. Since the beginning of the Romanov Dynasty in 1613, only a handful of leaders have left office alive: Tsar Michael I passed the crown to his son, Alexis I, shortly before his death in 1645; Ivan IV was deposed by his cousin shortly after his first birthday in 1741; Peter III was overthrown by his wife in 1762; Nicholas II abdicated in 1917; Khrushchev was pushed out of office in 1964; and Boris Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Day, 2000 due to illness. Every other Russian/Soviet ruler has held power until their last breath. (That is, except for Kerensky and Gorbachev, whose offices vanished underneath them.) Purely as a statistical matter, the most likely way for Putin to leave office is through the unconquerable certitude of mortality.

But it’s also possible he could be one of the exceptions. As the old Russian adage advises, the Kremlin has many towers. The secret to Putin’s stability in power has been his adept balancing (and blurring) of Russia’s monumental business interests, especially in extractive sectors, against its technocrats; its pragmatists against its ideologues; its great cities against its far-flung regions; its mobsters-businessmen-oligarchs against its spies, secret police, and other “security” “services.” But that balance may not hold forever. As Kristofer Harrison recently noted, “the economy is terrible, living standards are declining, inflation has set in, wages are stagnant—this is all serious danger territory for Russian autocrats.”

The Russian population’s confidence in Putin has been declining. Last year, it fell to 59 percent, the lowest ever. For a leader in a free country, this is a high approval rating. For an autocrat who controls all levers of power and regulates information in his favor, this is disastrous, nearing catastrophic. But also, there is a difference between the popularity of Putin and approval of the regime. Russians have higher confidence in Putin than the state. This goes back to the old myth of the great leader undermined by the elites and unaware of the problems. (The good tsar and the evil boyars; if only Comrade Stalin knew!) Alexei Navalny was particularly a threat to Putin because he was exposing Putin’s personal corruption. If more exposure campaigns erupt, it is very likely that Putin’s popularity will further decline.

If, somehow, Putin is forced out of power (don’t look for it to happen in one of Russia’s “elections”), there will be a scramble to find a replacement. What kind of person, and from what Kremlin tower, next takes power could have major implications for the United States and the West—not to mention the Russian people. The optimal but far-fetched outcome would be that Navalny repudiates his decade-old ethno-nationalist rhetoric and assumes power with a popular mandate to reform Russia, root out corruption, and begin the process of joining the European Union.

Equally unlikely an outcome is that someone like Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed dictator of Chechnya, harnesses more violence than competitors can match and becomes a new Stalin, but with a militant Islamist bent and a more advanced nuclear arsenal.

The most probable scenario is that someone like former president and prime minister Dmitri Medvedev would take over. He wouldn’t come close to reforming Russia’s twisted political economy, nor would he likely be a true friend of the free world, but he probably wouldn’t be as aggressive and destabilizing as Putin.

Iran also has problems with its elites. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a paramilitary group. It controls somewhere between 20 to 50 percent of the economy, and its members are quickly ascending the ladder of politics, from the parliament, the executive branch, and the judiciary to the clergy and the financial sector. But its growing status comes at the cost of the current elites, especially the clergy. Previously the main pillar of power, the clerical faction might make a run to regain its diminishing power in finding Khamenei’s replacement, and they remain quite popular and powerful in rural areas where people listen to their local mullahs. (Many if not most of the local mullahs disfavor the influence of the IRGC.) They could use this leverage against the IRGC to get one of their own as the new supreme leader, rather than a puppet of the IRGC. Foreign covert influence could certainly help encourage resistance, as the Brits, the Russians, and the Americans all have successfully bribed leading Iranian clerics in the past to manipulate their political behavior.

And then there is the anti-regime faction, as large and angry as it has ever been, which will try to exploit the vulnerable situation for the regime to bring change.

Currently, the most likely successors to Khamenei are his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, and president-elect Ebrahim Raisi, the compromise candidate of the clerics and the IRGC. Raisi ascended to the presidency with Mojtaba’s help—an odd move to elevate a competitor. In one scenario, Mojtaba could have come to grips with the reality that hereditary succession is a red line and is trying to preserve his power behind the scenes. Another scenario is that he is setting Raisi up for failure, to delegitimize him.

Supreme leaders are chosen by the Assembly of Experts, which has performed this function only once, 32 years ago. It is a cross between the College of Cardinals and the Electoral College. Only members approved by the Guardian Council can serve in the Assembly of Experts, and the members of the Guardian Council are all directly or indirectly appointed by the supreme leader. Iran’s constitution is nothing if not conservative. Don’t expect any change through the formal institutions.

As for informal institutions, they brought down Mossadegh in 1953 and the Shah in 1979. Such things are hard to predict, but Iran experts in the government should be busy identifying and developing relationships with Iranian liberals, especially those with possible leadership potential, just in case.

Putin and Khamenei might live and enjoy power for another decade. They also might not make it to the end of the year (especially Khamenei). In either case, when their times come, their regimes will reach peak instability and the greatest existential crises either regime has ever faced, providing a golden opportunity for change. The United States needs to have contingency plans to exploit the situations in favor of freedom.

It would be foolish to imagine that the United States and its allies could fully comprehend the situation in either country after the leader dies or is deposed—and it would be even more foolish to try. The best we can hope for is that when the time comes, America can nudge the chaos in the direction of democracy and prolong the succession process so Russians and Iranians could start their revolutions.

Whatever plans we make are likely, amid confusion, ambiguity, and uncertainty, to be basically useless before either leader is buried. But as Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.”

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.