“Who will succeed the Ayatollah” is a question that is gaining strength in Arab media, but also in others following the situation in Iran, in recent days. There is a reason for this: in the media and social networks, the thesis appeared that the supreme leader of the country, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in poor health.
Khamenei is 83 years old, and in 2014 he underwent prostate surgery. He has been in power as supreme leader – the highest instance in Arab politics despite having a parliament, president and government – since 1989, following the death of predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini, a driving force in the revolution.
Khamenei’s health is important not only for Iran. Even if he has serious health problems, it could jeopardize the completion of negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic, which requires his final approval. And in power, the interests “for” or “against” a compromise with the West are different. It is precisely the different interests that can lead to a confrontation over who will succeed him.
What is known so far about Khamenei’s condition and whose names have emerged as possible successors?
Iranian agencies reported his meetings held in recent days, without photos; the information for one of them was deleted. There is another one circulating on social media, the authenticity of which cannot be confirmed, and in which he is in bed. And “Saham News”, close to the reformists, talks about “ambiguous” information about the leader’s health.
In this situation, the Tehran correspondent of the Dubai-based publication Al Ain (founded at the initiative of Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum) bluntly headlined his publication yesterday: “Legacy or the constitution… who succeeds Khamenei as the leader of Iran?”
It is said that Khamenei has not named a successor – some of the potential ones are deceased, others in disgrace – and this is another addition to the list of crises facing the regime in the Islamic Republic. Formally, the United Arab Emirates, like Saudi Arabia, perceives Iran as a leading geopolitical rival, but this does not stop the UAE from preserving bridges with Tehran and even taking tentative steps towards normalization.
And Radio Farda (Free Europe’s Iranian platform) notes that the Rasa news agency linked to the spiritual center of Iranian Shiism, Kom, is fueling speculation about a groomed successor to Khamenei. It is his son, Mojtaba Khamenei, whom the agency calls “Ayatollah” even though he does not have the necessary qualifications to be called that title reserved for high-ranking members of the religious authority.
Recently, he has also been presented as a “mujtahid” – influential in the interpretation of religious law with recognized legal abilities from Shia jurisprudence.
It is recalled that the oppositionist Mir Hossein Mosavi warned last month about the risk of “hereditary” power: speculations have been going on for 13 years and it is not known why Tehran does not refute them, he believes. Mosavi has been under house arrest since 2011. He is referring to the presidential election after the 2009 protests, when Mojtaba’s name was also mentioned as a possible successor and Ali Khamenei’s son was alleged to have been involved in suppressing the demonstrations.
Al Ain notes the serious influence of Mojataba Khamenei, who co-controls leading economic institutions and through them – 60% of the country’s economy, and enjoys influence in the security sector, including through the security structures of the Revolutionary Guard, created from him at the end of the past decade: he is also the de facto commander of the Basij militia since 2009.
The current president
The name of the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, is also mentioned – an influential cleric, considered a favorite of the Revolutionary Guard, and before last year’s vote – a possible successor to Khamenei (he himself held the post of head of state before being succeeded by Khomeini). According to Al Ain, it is possible that his candidacy will be boosted by the conservatives.
Iran may elect a potential successor to Khamenei as president today
Another name appears (in another media outlet from the Gulf): that of Ghiyasuddin Taha Mohammadi – a cleric who rose to fame during the pandemic and first deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts. He is considered very close to Khamenei and is a former head of the judiciary.
The question of succession
In theory, the choice of the next leader rests in the hands of the Assembly of Experts, whose 88 members elect and oversee the work of the supreme leader.
At the same time, the election of the Assembly can only formalize the decision already taken by the previous supreme leader. In fact, Khamenei himself, the sole successor to power since the 1979 revolution, is not currently an ayatollah, Khomeini points out, and a constitutional change is required.
Khomeini settled on it after a conflict with his favorite student, Hossein Ali Montazeri, over the way the system worked nearly a decade after the revolution. And then there is the debate over whether Ahmad Khomeini, the son of the late first leader, should take over; however, he chooses to remain in the shadows.