El Cid, an 11th-century medieval warlord in Spain, was the hero of a 1962 epic directed by Anthony Mann. Toward the end of the three-hour movie, El Cid is killed on the battlefield and his army is on the verge of losing to the invading Moorish army. To ward off defeat, the surviving commanders prop up his corpse on the back of his horse with the help of an iron frame, dressed in armor and holding a banner. The horse leads the charge against the terrified Moorish soldiers, who believe that El Cid has risen from the dead. They scatter and the dead El Cid wins the day. The suggestion is that everybody believed that El Cid was the army and without him, all the soldiers under his command would have simply vanished into thin air.
For many years now, from time to time, rumors begin circulating about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s deteriorating health. The rumors are always reported on by the media, and each time, officials close to Khamenei or his doctors deny these reports, and then publish smiling photographs of the Leader as proof that the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Republic is a long way away from death. They know very well that Khamenei’s death will endanger “national security” as they understand it.
Fresh rumors emerged again In early December 2020, and the response has been no different than it has been in the past. Reports about Khamenei’s deteriorating condition and the transfer of power to his son Mojtaba were quickly denied. However, the source of the news, Momahad Ahwaze, told IranWire that he has ample information to back up his claim.
“Iranian journalist Momahad Majid Ahwaze has claimed on Twitter that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has transferred his powers to his son as concerns about his failing health have mounted and the country faces increased tensions with Israel and the US,” Newsweek reported on December 5. “Writing in Arabic, Ahwaze said Khamenei had handed power over to his son, Mojtaba Khamenei.” The news was picked up by the Jerusalem Post and Edy Cohen, an analyst with the paper, tweeted that, according to some reports, Khamenei is in a coma.
The job of denying these reports first fell to Mehdi Fazaeli, the former CEO of Fars news agency and a current deputy at the Institute for Publishing the Works of Ayatollah Khamenei, who posted smiling images of Khamenei on Twitter, adding that he was healthy and was “happily” carrying out his tasks as leader. The Mashregh News website, which is associated with the Revolutionary Guards, denied the reports of Khamenei’s ill health and accused Ahwaze of being close to the “Saudi family,” adding that these claims were just the wishful thinking of the “Zionists” and the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Once Again: Who Will Succeed Khamenei?
Regardless of whether the reports are true or false, even a cursory look at the responses to the news on social media reveals that many Iranians actually hope Khamenei’s condition is bad, or even that he is dying. The commotion on social media also spread to the international media. Despite all denials, people were anxious to have the news verified, and to speculate on the potential consequences. And once again, discussions about who might succeed Khamenei as the Supreme Leader were at the fore. Eyes turned toward his second son Mojtaba Khamenei, quickly looking over his past record. Many people asked whether he, like his father, would ignore the constitution. As his heir, would he inherit the entire country and its military power? After all, the affairs of the households of Shia religious authorities are traditionally passed down to their most trusted son or, if there is no son, to their son-in-law.
Momahad Majid Ahwaze, who presents himself as an independent journalist, defended his reporting, stating that his source is the same person who gave him the news of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran: “Later it turned out that everything he said about the outbreak was true. The source regarding the deteriorating health of Khamenei is the same person. And, regarding the transfer of power to Mojtaba Khamenei, I said the daily affairs of the Leader’s office are for the moment managed by Mojtaba.”
Ahwaze said his contact had given him other information as well. “The source in Iran who gave me this news emphasized that Ali Shamkhani [the secretary of the Supreme National Council] was supposed to meet with Khamenei’s staff the day after the Supreme Leader got sick but Mojtaba personally called Shamkhani and postponed the meeting,” he says. “The plan had been to welcome the family of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh [the nuclear scientist and a commander of the Revolutionary Guards who was assassinated on November 27] in the presence of Shamkhani but the plan was canceled.”
The last time Khamenei was seen in public was November 3, when he delivered a speech to mark the anniversary of the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage. In the video, Khamenei speaks intermittently, his voice changes and his face appears to crumple occasionally. The speech provided further fuel to speculations about his health.
Of course, stories and rumors about Khamenei’s poor health are circulated on a regular basis, along with speculations about his successor. In 2006, the political analyst Michael Ledeen claimed Khamenei was in a coma and Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is currently foreign minister and who was at the time Iran’s ambassador to the UN, denied Ledeen’s claim. But, at the same time, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was also a member of the Assembly of Experts, had said that the country must consider the question of a new leader so that if something happened, Iran would be ready for a transfer of power. According to Rafsanjani, after talks involving a few hundred people, two names were “secretly” chosen as potential candidates to succeed Khamenei.
In 2009 there was another report of Khamenei’s illness, and in 2014 it was reported that he had been hospitalized in Tehran for prostate surgery. At that time Dr. James Elist, former medical advisor to the US Senate, told IranWire that they had been hearing reports of Khamenei’s prostate cancer for years.
In early 2019 it was reported that Khamenei himself had asked officials to identify a successor for him within three years. The report quoted Yousef Tabatabie-Nejad, Isfahan’s representative to the Assembly of Experts and appeared on the Tehran Times’ Telegram channel. The report, of course, was denied. Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari, another member of the Assembly of Experts, said: “this subject has never been raised at the assembly and I find it very unlikely.”
The “Constitutional” Process
The Assembly of Experts is tasked with electing the Supreme Leader, or dismissing him if the need arises. It consists of 88 Shia religious authorities who are “elected” by the people from among the candidates whose qualifications are approved by the Guardian Council. This council consists of six lawyers and six Shia jurists. The Shia jurists are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the lawyers are elected by the parliament out of a group nominated by the head of the judiciary, who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader.
According to Article 5 and Articles 107 and 109 of the Iranian constitution, the Assembly of Experts must choose a leader who is “fully aware of the circumstances of his age; is courageous, resourceful, and in possession of administrative ability.” In addition to possessing the mastery of Islamic jurisprudence and the authority to issue fatwas, he must have the “right political and social sagacity, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership.”
From a legal point of view, there can be no successor to Khamenei until the leader dies. But what about real life? Will this “absolute leader” be willing to leave behind all that he owns, especially his military and security assets, without having a successor ready? Will he trust the two pillars of his dictatorship — the Revolutionary Guards and the clerical establishment — to the process of the constitutional law?
Some analysts believe that, according to available evidence, Mojtaba Khamenei has been in charge of the Revolutionary Guards for a long time. At the same time, Ayatollah Khamenei also trusts his son Mojtaba to manage the affairs of his office. Would the ayatollah let go of his inheritance without an inheritor, or will he try, as long as he lives, to build as much support as possible for his successor so that his regime will survive with the minimum possible cost and thereby utterly disappoint the many people who are hoping his death will bring down the Islamic Republic?
Hossein Alizadeh, a former diplomat for the Islamic Republic diplomat who says he personally knows Khamenei’s two sons — Mostafa, the eldest, and Mojtaba, the second son — tells IranWire: “a group in the government want to promote Mojtaba because he is most like Khamenei and shares one of the most important characteristics of his father, i.e., his management abilities. He is a dictator with management skills.”
Alizadeh, however, does not believe the news reported by Ahwaze. “It is true that Khamenei is sick and perhaps his health has deteriorated but it is very unlikely that there has been a transfer of power,” he says. “This is not the first time that we have heard such news. All this racket is coming from one source and a second source has not confirmed it. It would have been believable if the appearance of the transfer of power had been kept. For example, it would have been more convincing if they had reported that the Assembly of Experts has announced that Mojtaba is a candidate [to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei]. At least in appearances, the Islamic Republic is not a monarchy, where power can be transferred to another person overnight.”
In the Footsteps of His Father
Of course, for years now there have been signs that Mojtaba is being groomed to succeed his father — from the moment a photograph of him was published showing Mojtaba sitting in a classroom in Qom, teaching a subject that only a Shia religious authority can teach, despite the fact that he has not completed the stages of scholarship that would qualify him.
Of course, it has been reported that even his father did not qualify to become the Supreme Leader and, in 1989, it was with the help of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that he gained power and became an ayatollah overnight. Recently, some people who support Mojtaba to be Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor post images of him with captions that refer to him as “ayatollah”.
Hossein Alizadeh believes the biggest obstacle to elevating Mojtaba as the next Supreme Leader is not public opinion or the people but Qom’s seminaries and religious authorities. “They must be persuaded to accept a 50-year-old ignoramus [in terms of Sharia] as the leader,” he says. “In my opinion, reports that power has suddenly been transferred to Mojtaba was, to a large degree, meant to destroy his image among security and revolutionary forces.”
It would appear that Mojtaba is following in the footsteps of his father from the lowly position of a hojatoleslam, an honorific applied to any graduate of a Shia seminary, to becoming an ayatollah, a religious authority. His close relations with the Revolutionary Guards and his management of the Supreme Leader’s office make him a contender to succeed his father. But, if after Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, died there was an influential figure such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who was able to hand over the power to Khamenei, there appears to be no such figure in today’s Islamic Republic. For this reason, it is unlikely that Khamenei will leave this world without designating his own successor.
On the other hand, at least when it comes to the illness or the death of an Iranian leader, the news has always followed the same pattern. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the news that Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Iranian monarch, was suffering from cancer was hidden even from Farah, his queen. Until a few months before leaving Iran forever, Farah did not know about the cancer. Perhaps if Mohammad Reza Shah had not been suffering from cancer he would have acted differently in the last years of his rule and Iran’s fate would have been a different one.
And it was a long time after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 that it was revealed that he had had a stroke in 1986 — three years during which Iran witnessed important events, from the end of the Iran-Iraq war to the removal of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as Khomeini’s heir apparent and the revision of the constitution. The world learned long afterward that during this period Khomeini had been on the verge of death.
Now it appears that the story of Khamenei, his death and his successor is following the same pattern. For years there have been reports about his ill health. He has been hospitalized and his health has deteriorated but officials of the Islamic Republic have invariably denied these reports. But, even if they try to keep Khamenei “alive” like El Cid, it appears that supporters of Mojtaba Khamenei, most of all his father, are doing their best to make his succession a foregone conclusion for the religious authorities in Qom, for Iranian public opinion and for the international community so that nobody will be able to entertain the idea that after Khamenei, this edifice will crumble, leaving its material, military, security and spiritual assets without an inheritor.
Also in this series:
Weekly Khamenei Report: Suppression at Home, Compromises Abroad, 4 December 2020
Weekly Khamenei Report: Animal Farm, Soleimani Style, 20 October 2020
Weekly Khamenei Report: A Spider Caught in its Own Web, 11 November 2020