Middle East


Successors Rumored for Reportedly Ailing Supreme Leader

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with Russia's security chief Igor Ivanov (L) in Tehran on Jan. 28. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Unconfirmed allegations about "the serious illness" of Iran's supreme leader has triggered heated speculation in expat media sources on who the successor to Iran's highest political authority could be.

Rumors have been circulating for quite a while in Iran that the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is suffering from a serious illness that has put him in a critical state of health.

The allegations reached their height by late December, with claims that the leader of Iran had passed away when Ayatollah Khamenei, 67, failed to appear for a regular public annual sermon of Muslim's Eid ul-Adha — or as its called in Persian, Eid-e Qurban.

The continued speculation reached a point where Iranian officials had to publicly deny it; but the allegations did not stop cruising the Internet until Mr. Khamenei made an appearance on television days later.

U.S. sources previously indicated that the most powerful man in Tehran had long been suffering from cancer, but a long-time political foe of Iran — renowned American neo-conservative theorist Michael Ledeen — brought the issue to the fore when he claimed that according to his sources Mr. Khamenei had passed away.

Although the allegation was completely refuted by Ayatollah Khamenei's TV appearance, the fact still remains for observers that the supreme leader has had notably fewer public speeches during the past months. They also raise the point that his overall appearance in photos and news footage seems to be "un-healthy and physically weak."

Strengthening such claims was a report posted by the conservative, pro-Islamic Republic Fars News Agency stating that the supreme leader was suffering from a "severe bout of flu."

Although the report ended with an "and that's all" phrase, denying the aforementioned rumors, the mere publication of such news reinforced the doubts about Mr. Khamenei's health condition.

According to Iran's media rules, any news, statement or information regarding the supreme leader must be directly released through leader's office, and Fars News Agency is regarded as the first domestic media source to report on the strongly tabooed issue of his health.

Mentioning the rumors, Fars said that: "The supreme leader, just like anyone else, can become ill. … For some time he has been suffering from flu so severe that it can be heard in his voice. Therefore, he has cut back on his official program on doctor's advice."

Regardless of the denials, however, speculation over who might be the successor to Ayatollah Khamenei has already begun in the Iranian expat media and among the foreign-based opposition.

Supreme leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran is considered to be the most dominant and influential position in the country's political arena. The leader has absolute power over the functioning of government, parliament and the judiciary system, and is the commander in chief of the military forces. The country's major policy stances on essential issues such as the nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or U.S.-Iran relations profoundly depend on his perception and viewpoints, to the point that he can shift both domestic and international policy in an entirely different path.

The supreme leader is chosen for a lifetime position by the 86 members of the highly authoritative Council of Experts.

In the speculation over a possible successor to Ayatollah Khamenei, the focus has centered on four probable candidates: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mahmood Hashemi Shahroodi, Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and lastly, Mohammad Khatami.

The most probable of the potential candidates for leadership, according to speculation, is the current chairman of the Council of Expediency Discernment Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. A pragmatic conservative, Rafsanjani, who took the lead in entering the Council of Experts during the latest election has been seen as a political flip-flopper, in the past 10 years shifting from a conservative stance toward a more reformist tendency. Having previously served as Iran's president for a two-term period, and also as chairman of parliament, he is considered one of the most powerful office-holders since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

Rafsanjani, who lost the 2005 presidential election to hard-liner Mahmood Ahmadinejad, has lately established himself as a moderate conservative, criticizing the policies of the current government and raising the issue of the potential threats that face Iran.

Another possible candidate, current head of the Islamic Republic's Judicial system Mahmood Hashemi Shahroodi, is also believed to be a relatively moderate cleric within the circle of Iran's conservatives. He is best known for instituting Iran's 2002 moratorium on stoning as a form of capital punishment for women who commit adultery. In 2003 he personally met with a group of imprisoned journalists and bloggers on their request and ordered their release.

Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, an iconic fundamentalist in Iran's core of power and the most established and outspoken opponent of ex-president Khatami's reform movement, is also considered by many as a possible candidate for ascension to supreme leadership. Mesbah Yazdi is regarded the spiritual inspiration for president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and strongly backed him during the presidential elections. He had previously compared the reforms movement to the AIDS virus, "which must be eliminated."

Mesbah Yazdi and his fundamentalist front have vast influence in the city of Qom among the prominent clerics. Reformists have nicknamed him "the theoretician of violence," as he approves of use of violence against "decadent" people. He also is a member of the Council of Experts.

The least probable candidate on the list of possible successors is the reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami. According to the law, being only a Hojjatoleslam (mid-ranking Shia cleric) at first glance makes it impossible for Khatami to qualify for the leadership position, where the supreme leader must be a mojtahed (high-ranking shia cleric with religious authority to issue Fatwa). The other major potential obstacle for Khatami is the negative view held by Qom's hard-line clerical core of power for his Islamic Democracy movement, which largely promoted political, social and cultural reforms.

However, some observers believe that the priority of protecting the existence of the regime supercedes any other concern. This theory postulates that due to the vast popularity of Khatami both inside the country and in the international arena, he stands as the only pragmatic option that just by appointment to the top position on its own would reduce the tensions which are threatening the existence of the Islamic Republic regime. The assumption is that if he is appointed, clerics will accept to closely observe his steps through the Council of Experts, which also can supervise the handling of leadership.

Another option, according to unofficial reports, is the formation of a supreme leadership council. This, however, remains less than likely as the clerical core of power allegedly stands strongly against it.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was chosen by Iran's Assembly of Experts in June 1989 to succeed Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when the Islamic Republic's founder died. Given his vast range of authority, he is considered as one of the most powerful political figures in the entire Middle East, and any possible replacement will inevitably affect the equation of power in the region.

Islamic Republic officials have repeatedly rejected rumors over Ayatollah Khamenei's "serious illness," denouncing it as one of the "enemy's methods" to weaken Iran.

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