In a rare comment last week, Iran’s 75-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told reporters he was going to a hospital for a “routine operation.” Press TV later reported he successfully underwent prostate cancer surgery.
The last time the Iranian public saw images of Khamenei in a hospital was back in 1981. At the time, he was recovering from an assassination attempt by the opposition Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. Khamenei, who was then a senior member of his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s administration, lost his right arm. Soon after that, Khamenei’s images became ubiquitous. He was seen in a military uniform on the front lines chatting with soldiers fighting Iraq during the Iraq–Iran war, which lasted from 1980 to ’88. Another famous image was of then-President Khamenei lambasting the U.S. at the U.N. General Assembly in 1987.
The reason for the latest surgery is far less revolutionary.
The image of the aging Khamenei recuperating in a hospital bed and being kissed by President Hassan Rouhani has led to speculation about janesheen, or succession, by Iran observers and probably by people at the higher echelons of Iranian politics.
The subject of choosing a successor was not publicly discussed until this spring. “May the Almighty protect the leader and prolong his life,” said assembly member Ayatollah Gholam Ali Dori Najaf Abadi in May during a meeting of Assembly of Experts. “But in any case, we have to think about what will be after him.” Few people at the time took note of his statement. After all, Khamenei appeared physically fit and going strong.
But his hospitalization is likely to create concerns that Iran he is ailing more than previously thought.
For years it was rumored that Khamenei had prostate cancer. However, since Iranian politics is rife with rumors, many Iran watchers were skeptical of such reports. It is now clear that reports about his ailing health were more than just rumors.
Thus the question, Who will be his successor? And will a new supreme leader usher in changes to Iran’s foreign policy, nuclear program and relations with the U.S.?
No one seems to have a definitive answer to the successor question, as nobody is publicly known to have been groomed for the role. A look at Khamenei’s immediate family from Mashhad, where he was born, does not offer much of a clue.
His younger brother Hadi Khamenei is an ardent reformist and is hated by some hard-liners. In 1999 Hadi Khamenei, who was then a minister in parliament and an adviser to then-President Mohammad Khatami, was attacked by at least 45 thugs and badly beaten, leaving his skull fractured. His sister Badri Khamenei and her husband opposed the Islamic Republic. In 1985 in the middle of the Iraq-Iran war, Badri Khamenei defected to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, joining her husband, who previously sought asylum in Baghdad. She admitted later that 20 of her friends were arrested and executed by the regime. She returned to Iran in 1995 but remains alienated from Ali Khamenei. Badri and Hadi Khamenei made news after they visited former presidential candidate Mehdi Karoubi, who is under house arrest. Ali Khamenei’s supporters accuse Karoubi of wanting to overthrow the regime.
The chances of the emergence of a successor to Khamenei who would bring significant change to Iran’s foreign and domestic policy approach remain distant.
Ali Khamenei’s older brother Mohammad Khamenei, who also survived an assassination attempt during the early years of the revolution, is not high-ranking enough even to be considered a contender for the top post.
The only person in the family who could have a chance of replacing him is his son Mojtaba Khamenei, a 45-year-old cleric and a serious behind-the-scenes political operator. In the 2005 presidential elections, opposition leaders accused Mojtaba Khamenei of orchestrating election fraud. Others say he’s also behind the election irregularities of 2009. But Mojtaba Khamenei, not even a mid-ranking hojatoleslam in the Shia religious hierarchy, does not have the right religious qualifications to replace his father.
The other person often mentioned as a likely successor is Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Born in Iraq to an Iranian family, the 66-year-old cleric moved to Iran shortly after the 1979 revolution. From 1999 to 2009, Shahroudi served as Iran’s head of judiciary, a post typically given to the supreme leader’s closest confidants. Shahroudi went on to join a number of other important organs of the state, including the all-powerful Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts (which he is now chairing, since its former head is in coma).
In 2011 Shahroudi opened an office in Najaf in Iraq — which some believe he did to increase Iran’s clout in Iraq’s Shia affairs. Such a move is believed to have been made in close coordination with Ali Khamenei. The Tehran news site Tabnak, quoting Iraqi media, reported that members of the Shia Dawa party, to which Iraq’s former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his successor, Haider al-Abadi belong, recognized Shahroudi as their source of emulation (marja-e taghlid). A religious source of emulation carries religious weight and influence at minimum as well as political influence, especially in a religiously divided country like Iraq. One of the reasons behind such a declaration is the close relations between Shahroudi and Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, one of the most important former Dawa leaders, who was executed by Saddam in 1980. According to his biography, Shahroudi represented Sadr in Iran. As Iraq increasingly becomes an important part of Iranian political calculus, Shahroudi’s Iraqi connection could give him an advantage over other candidates. He is also rumored to be close to the senior ranks of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which would boost his chances even further.
Centers of power
For now, the question of who will succeed Khamenei remains speculative. One thing we are far more certain about, other than Khamenei’s eventual passing, is his closeness to the IRGC and its growing strength in Iran’s politics and economy.
The IRGC is not a monolithic organization, but like Khamenei, its senior leaders are conservative in their political beliefs. After all, this is one of the reasons they were appointed to their current positions in the first place. Although the supreme leader is officially selected by the members of the Assembly of Experts, in reality, before the appointment of a new supreme leader, there is much backroom negotiation and lobbying by different centers of power for their chosen candidates. With the IRGC one of those power centers in Iranian politics, it’s unlikely it would back the appointment of a supreme leader who would change or challenge the status quo much.
The chances, then, of the emergence of a successor to Khamenei who would bring significant change to Iran’s foreign and domestic policy approach remain distant. The people of Iran and foreign governments would be best advised to significantly reduce their hope for change in a post-Khamenei Islamic Republic of Iran.