Eleven years ago, former 2009 presidential election candidates and Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi warned that leadership of the Islamic Republic might be on its way to becoming hereditary.
“Isn’t is painful,” the pair wrote in February 2011, “that 30 years after the revolution, people have to worry again about the return of a monarchical structure, this time in the name of religion? In the current political conditions, the only thing still missing is hereditary leadership.”
For the past year an a half, pro-democracy protesters had raised the specter of Ali Khamenei’s son Mojtaba Khamenei being groomed for leadership; one oft-heard slogan was “Die, Mojtaba, and never rise to Leadership.” Even then, however, the likelihood of his succeeding his father was not taken as seriously as it is today.
Both Mousavi and Karroubi were placed under house arrest about a week after making that statement. But last week, a still-imprisoned Mousavi repeated his warning of 11 years earlier.
In the introduction to a new collection of writings from the Green Movement, Mousavi claimed that a scheme to place Mojtaba in the driving seat after his father’s demise had been in the making for 13 years. “If they’re not really looking to do this,” he persisted, “why have they never once denied such an intention?”
Mousavi’s remarks were posted online on Tuesday, August 9. Conservative media outlets reacted instantly and with outrage. Seizing on other parts of the introduction, Mousavi was variously accused of supporting ISIS, working for Israel to stir up internal disorder, and being “delusional”. Conspicuously absent in these attacks, though, was any mention of what Mousavi had said about Mojtaba Khamenei.
A Trap for President Raisi?
In June this year, when Hossein Taeb was dismissed as head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization, some took it as a sign that the plan to put Mojtaba Khamenei on the throne of the Islamic Republic has fallen apart given the 30-year close relationship between the pair.
Many more politicians of all hues, however, believe there is cause for concern. In 2016, the ex-IRIB director Mohammad Sarafraz wrote in his memoirs that on being forced to resign, he had gone to Hossein Taeb and told him: “I thank you. And since I might not meet the gentlemen, please thank Mr. Hossein Mohammadi [a member of the Office of the Supreme Leader responsible for investigations] and Haj Mojtaba for me, because you arranged it for me to leave IRIB. This deserves my thanks, because you ended my problems.”
In 2020, posters bearing the words “At your command, Mojtaba!” were posted all over Tehran. State media reported that those responsible had been arrested. It was never made clear who was behind them or what offence they had committed.
When Ebrahim Raisi was lined up to become president of Iran last year, some assumed this was meant as a prelude to his becoming Supreme Leader. Others, however, noticing the horrendous in-tray Raisi was inheriting, suggested it was a scheme to pull the rug out from under him as a would-be candidate – to Mojtaba’s ultimate advantage.
Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, made the point that Iran’s eighth president might come off the worse for wear no matter who they were, or how they performed. “You see the situation of Mr. Rouhani now,” she said. “How dissatisfied everyone is, how many are against him. See what has become of his standing with people. The next president is likely to find himself in the same situation. Because the problems are extraordinary, and widespread.”
Taqi Azad Armaki, a professor of sociology at the University of Tehran, also said he believed influential figures in the office of the Supreme Leader played a role in setting up Raisi’s win and thus, perhaps, sidelining him in future. First among them, he claimed, was Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a principalist politician and Mojtaba Khamenei's father-in-law.
"After this election,” he said, “the president will be discredited, and his reputation will be ruined. He can neither be the catalyst for the selection of the next leader, nor the next leader himself.
"The real concern is that Mr. Mojtaba will become leader. The Supreme Leader’s goal is for Mojtaba to be next. Were it anything else, they would never have nominated Raisi as a candidate without a rival. He was elected unrivalled so that he wouldn’t look like a champion, or like a true winner.” The events of the past 12 months indicate he and others may have been on the money.
The Response to Mousavi’s Warning
Last week’s pillorying of Mousavi in Iranian state-aligned media did not make any reference to his remarks on leadership. Instead, detractors focused on criticism he had made in the same article of the Islamic Republic’s interventions in Syria.
The “ISIS” remarks referred to Mousavi having taken issue with the role of Hossein Hamedani, an IRGC commander in Syria who died in 2015. Mousavi had said Hamedani’s death in 2015 was “a lesson for survivors” not to blindly follow “autocratic demands”.
Outside of the main media organs, just a handful of individual conservative politicians acknowledged what Mousavi had said about Mojtaba Khamenei. Abdollah Ganji, managing editor of the newspaper Hamshahri and a former managing editor Javan, tweeted: “The claim made by Mousavi, without any logic or evidence, that the Leadership is to become hereditary is a twin of [his] claim that the  election was fraudulent. Both claims have one source. He has become a gambler with nothing left to lose.”
Mohammad Saleh Meftah, a principlist close to current speaker of parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, tweeted: “I am really surprised that a political figure would take seriously the rumors about Mr. Mojtaba Khamenei succeeding the Supreme Leader! At least learn some history.”
This was likely a reference to Ahmad Khomeini, the youngest son of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was expected by some to succeed his father but failed. Regardless of one’s stance on the debate, it is widely assumed that Mojtaba Khomenei observed his fate and resolved not to take the same approach.
“Do Not Remain Indifferent”
The comments by Mousavi were timely. Though some read Hossein Taeb’s dismissal as a signal that Mojtaba was not in line for succession, others read the opposite. One was the loudmouth conservative MP Ali Motahari. In a recent tweet, he had reminded believers that Imam Hossein, grandson of Prophet Mohammad and the third Shia Imam, had not risen against the caliphate of Muawiya – a usurper in the eyes of the Shias – for full 10 years, only doing so when Muawiya turned the caliphate into a hereditary monarchy.
Imam Hossein did this, Motahari proclaimed, “because he knew that If he did not rise up and his and his companions’ blood were not offered for this cause, no trace of Islam would remain... So, we also have the duty not to remain indifferent if we come face to face with the same situation.”