Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 83, made his first public appearance on September 17 since falling ill earlier this month, which prompted a fresh round of questions about who might eventually succeed him. Among the favourites in the running are President Ebrahim Raisi and the Supreme leader’s son Mojtaba Khamenei.
The Ayatollah Khamenei appeared in public for the first time in two weeks on September 17 for a religious ceremony broadcast on Iranian state TV – showing no sign of fatigue as he addressed his audience with a firm voice.
The appearance followed rumours about Khamenei suffering from ill health, most notably a September 16 report in The New York Times saying Iran’s supreme leader had “canceled all meetings and public appearances last week after falling gravely ill and is currently on bed rest under observation by a team of doctors” citing people familiar with the situation.
Khamenei, 83, has had serious health issues in the past, including in 2014 when he was treated for prostate cancer.
The post of supreme leader is for life, and Khamenei’s health issues once again raise questions about eventual succession. The top job in Iran has changed only once – when Ayatollah Khomenei died in 1989 – since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“The issue right now is how the political situation will be configured to ensure the best interests of the regime and the Islamic Republic’s stability,” said Jonathan Piron, a historian specialising in Iran at the Etopia think-tank in Brussels.
The Assembly of Experts, a group of 88 Islamic scholars in charge of many of the leadership issues for the Islamic Republic, is also responsible for selecting and – if necessary – firing Iran’s supreme leader. The experts are elected by universal suffrage but all candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by the supreme leader.
“The Assembly of Experts is made up of a more hardline group of people than it used to be,” Piron said. It is currently headed by 95-year-old hardliner Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.
“The role of supreme leader is of course very political, and so is the choice of the next person to take the role,” Piron said. At the apex of the Iranian power structure, this clerical figure stands above the country’s president.
As well as this formal decision-making process, other actors will have their say behind the scenes in selecting the next supreme leader. “There will definitely be consultations with the Revolutionary Guards, who control Iran’s security apparatus and large parts of its economy.”
Ebrahim Raisi, the favourite
As things stand, there are “plenty of signs that the ground is being prepared for Ebrahim Raisi” to take over, Piron said. The current president has Khamenei’s confidence and “already enjoys access to all the various power bases”.
Indeed, many analysts saw Raisi’s election as president in 2021 as a stepping stone to the position of supreme leader. Raisi has occupied all the top jobs – from head of the Imam Reza Shrine Foundation’s vast financial operations to head of the judiciary, the post he held before becoming president.
It is also worth noting that Khamenei himself was president when he was picked to become supreme leader in 1989. Another key advantage for Raisi is that he used to be vice president of the Assembly of Experts.
Nevertheless, others argue that Raisi’s time as president could taint him. “Raisi needs to succeed in his presidency if he doesn’t want a large part of the population and, indeed, the clergy to oppose him,” Piron said. “But he faces major challenges in the form of an economic crisis and burgeoning protests.”
Mojtaba Khamenei, the man in the shadows
A second name has been mentioned as a possible successor for several years now: Mojtaba Khamenei, none other than the son of the current supreme leader. The 53-year-old is seen as very discreet – but he is no less powerful for it.
Mojtaba Khamenei has an extensive personal network; that is to say, he personally knows all of the major Revolutionary Guard commanders. He plays a “central role” in the Iranian system, Piron said, especially because he is head of the Beit, the supreme leader’s office. As a group of advisers to the supreme leader, the Beit functions as an institution parallel to the rest of the Iranian state – with its own administration aimed at validating the decisions taken at different levels of power so they conform to Khamenei’s wishes.
“The Beit’s actions have little transparency and are based on a lot of power plays and clientelism,” Piron said. “Mojtaba Khamenei was never elected; he was appointed to this position by his father, who wanted to surround himself with very loyal people. Critics consider him a corrupt figure who benefits from his position in the office of the supreme leader because he is Ali Khamenei’s son.”
In a country where corruption has become commonplace – exasperating a population suffering from an acute economic crisis – Mojtaba Khamenei is the subject of a particular hatred towards the “sons of” powerful figures, giving him the nickname “Aghazadeh” (meaning “son of a noble lord”).
Mojtaba Khamenei’s name has also been chanted in several demonstrations against the government because he is frequently linked to the Basij – a militia comprised of volunteers working for the supreme leader that is sometimes responsible for repressing student demonstrations or hunting down women who wear the compulsory veil incorrectly.
Finally, some clerics question the extent of Mojtaba Khamenei’s expertise in theology. Until now, he has only held the title of hojatoleslam (an intermediate rank in the Shiite clergy). But Iran’s constitution dictates that before becoming supreme leader one must have obtained the rank of ayatollah marja (a title given to the highest Shiite authority), been the head of a seminary and had many years of practice in religious teaching.
Keeping the regime alive
Those qualification requirements could complicate Mojtaba Khamenei’s path to succeeding his father. “The supreme leader must play the role of peacemaker, keeping himself outside of the various conflicts between factions,” Piron said, adding that Ali Khamenei has succeeded in dealing with quarrels among different hardliners. But some believe that Mojtaba Khamenei is “not neutral enough” to do the same.
So the current supreme leader’s son could find a role elsewhere. With the network he has, Mojtaba Khamenei will be there in the shadows to ensure that the next supreme leader remains a hardliner like his father. “That makes it unthinkable that a reformer or moderate could be asked to take the role,” Piron argued.
In any case, Piron said, “if the regime wants to survive, it is almost certain that there are plans, or at least scenarios, being studied very closely behind the scenes to avoid a chaotic situation”. But the dealings behind the scenes, for now, remain “very opaque”.
This article was translated from the original in French.