The name of Mojtaba Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s second son, has again been mentioned in the context of a possible transfer of power given the Supreme Leader’s ailing physical condition. Speculation around Mojtaba Khamenei being positioned as the next Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran has gone on for more than a decade now. How, and, why has this debate evolved down the years?
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came to power more than 30 years ago in 1989, at the age of 50 and having formerly served as President of Iran for much of the preceding decade. For the past 15 years, talk has swirled around the prospect of his second son taking up the mantle of Supreme Leader in the future.
Mojtaba Khamenei was born in 1969 and studied theology after graduating from high school. He served in the Iran-Iraq war, but it was not until the late 1990s that he came to be recognized as a public figure in his own right.
After the landslide defeat of Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri in the 1997 presidential election, various groups under the leadership of the Islamic Republic decided to make changes to their structures. In a diary entry dated January 21, 1998, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani recalls a meeting he attended with Akbar Nabavi: then a member of the editorial board of the newspaper Resalat. Nabavi, he writes, said he and others planned to write a letter to the Supreme Leader about “defects” in his office and in other institutions, including Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the judiciary, and the Ansar-e Hezbollah and Mo'talefeh Eslami political groups. Nabavi also told Rafsanjani that Mojtaba Khamenei had himself asked them to provide an analysis of the situation in universities.
In this tense atmosphere, some groups officially affiliated to Khamenei made plans to take control of the country. Toward the end of Hashemi Rafsanjani's government some actions were taken, including legal cases being filed on behalf of Rafsanjani's children and relatives. Hossein Taeb, then-intelligence chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had a special role in making a case for Mehdi Hashemi. In the years that followed, Taeb's name would be cited many times alongside that of Mojtaba Khamenei.
Mohsen Rafighdoust, the former head of the powerful Foundation for the Oppressed and Veterans of the Islamic Revolution, has claimed in his memoirs that during the Iran-Iraq War, and specifically the recapture of the Iranian city of Mehran in 1986, both Mojtaba Khamenei and Mehdi Hashemi, together with a number of other officials' children, had gone “missing” for a week. “My son Saeed,” writes Rafighdoust, “Mr. Hashemi's sons, and Mojtaba were together and they had been missing for a week. We did not know where they were. They later reported that they were stuck somewhere between Iran and Iraq. I went to see the Supreme Leader and he said, ‘Let us pray that if something happens to them, they will be martyred and, God willing, they will not be captured.’ Our forces moved forward and they were rescued. This was the attack that led to Mehran's liberation."
At the time of writing, however, Mehdi Hashemi is still serving a prison sentence while Mojtaba Khamenei is being touted as Iran’s next Supreme Leader. The first time this suggestion came up was in 2005, when Mehdi Karroubi, one of the leaders of the Green Movement and at the time a presidential candidate, wrote a letter to Khamenei in which he complained about his son's weighing in on the election. It was said in political circles that Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri had contacted Khamenei through his chief of staff and expressed concern about his son's support of candidates as an “Aghazadeh” – a noble-born, influential child of the elite. Khamenei’s response was said to have been: "He is an Agha [a term for a Shiite Islamic leader], not an Aghazadeh."
Prior to the election, Mojtaba Khamenei and Hussein Taeb reportedly attended the headquarters of the news of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a candidate in the election who would go on to become Mayor of Tehran. In his letter, Karroubi claimed Khamenei had been working in support of Ghalibaf “but three days before the vote, his popularity suddenly dropped off and attention focused on the other candidate."
Karroubi went on to examine the number of votes in the 2009 presidential elections. In another letter in 2017, he wrote: “If, during those days, I had appealed to Imam Hassan Mojtaba, the second Imam of the Shiites and the son of Imam Ali, my more than five million votes in 2005 would not have fallen to a ridiculously low 300,000 in 2009."
Further stories of a close-knit relationship between Mojtaba Khamenei and Hussein Taeb surfaced from there. Mohammad Sarafraz, the former head of the IRIB who resigned in 2016, claimed that before resigning he had gone to Taeb and declared: “I thank you, and since I may not be able to see the gentleman himself, on my behalf, please thank Mr. Haj Agha Mojtaba, because you prepared the ground for me to leave the IRIB, to my relief.” Sarafraz went on to explain: "Instead of denying it, he asked me, ‘Well, what do you want to do next?’. I said I would retire."
During the 2009 elections, Mojtaba Khamenei’s name again came to the fore – this time because protesters chanted, “Die, Mojtaba, you will never see leadership." Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician who spent seven years in prison after the 2009 vote, also claimed that the case against him and his wife, Fakhr al-Sadat Mohtashamipour, had been built directly under the supervision of Mojtaba Khamenei.
Prior to the events of 2009 Mojtaba Khamenei had already begun extra-jurisprudential classes, the highest level of Shiite scholarship, in Qom. This gave credence to the idea that he was building up to a bid for future leadership. The website Jahan News also reported that some Shia sources of emulation had protested against Khamenei attending further classes at the seminar. It came at a time when Hassan Khomenei, grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had already been attending extra-jurisprudential classes for more than a year but had not received any backlash from Shia clerics despite his much lower level of education. Ali Khamenei's eldest son, Mustafa, had also previously undergone extra-jurisprudential tuition but unlike his younger brother, he was not active in politics and so this had caused no controversy.
With reports of Khamenei's deteriorating health now rife, the question of whether Mojtaba will be named his successor has returned to the fore. In recent years some of Mojtaba’s potential rivals have left the scene, and it has been speculated that recent negative publications about Sadegh Larijani, the former head of the judiciary and a potential candidate, have the hand of Mojtaba Khamenei behind them.
Mojtaba Khamenei's main problem in replacing his father will be his lack of a formal track record of executive governance. His leadership of Khamenei’s office is currently the strongest qualification he can show – officially, at least.