Postings About Iran’s Supreme Leader Turn Sights to Succession

Ayatollah Khameini’s son and the current Iranian president are seen as top contenders, though talk of the supreme leader’s death may be just that.

AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, file
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, file

TEL AVIV — Unconfirmed reports of the Iranian supreme leader’s death may signal the launch of a behind-the-scenes scramble to take over Tehran’s top spot. Conversely, they could be like Michael Corleone’s remark about Hyman Roth: “He’s been dying of the same heart attack for the last 20 years.”

Social media in Iran and elsewhere in the region have been abuzz with postings that the 83-year old cancer-stricken ayatollah has died, and that the authorities, for now, are not ready to make the official announcement. Some sites posted denials akin to Mark Twain’s “reports on my death are widely exaggerated.” 

“I’ve been hearing these rumors for the last five, six years,” an Israeli Farsi-language broadcaster, Menashe Amir, said. Yet, the Islamic Republic has for some time been gearing up for a succession battle. “There has been much talk recently” that Supreme Leader Khamenei “intends to name his son as successor,” Mr. Menashe, who is closely attuned to Iranian media, told the Sun. 

The son, Mojtaba Khamenei, is in his mid-40s and is considered a highly ambitious up-and-comer in Iranian politics. He has strong ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which dominate foreign and security policies, and control much of Iran’s economy via linked corporations.

The younger Mr. Khamenei has been brushing up on his religious credentials for a while, as some Islamic knowledge is a formal requirement for becoming a grand ayatollah. 

Then again, the current Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has long been considered a future successor. A hardliner whose claim to shame is the execution of thousands of regime opponents and others when he was a top judicial official in 1988, Mr. Raisi is expected to visit New York next week to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly debate.

Eight Republican senators are urging President Biden to deny an entry visa to Mr. Raisi, as have a former U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and a former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who is one of several former American government officials the IRGC is known to be targeting for assasination.  

Mr. Raisi has long been thought of as a favorite of the elder Mr. Khamenei, who had hand-picked him for the presidency. The president lacks formal religious credentials, but that could be compensated for with sheer ruthlessness, or a mobilization of loyalists within the IRGC ranks. The cruelty Mr. Raisi has displayed during his time as a top judicial official may seem like a problem for outsiders, but zealots who are extremely powerful at Tehran see it as an asset. 

As the American Enterprise Institute’s Iran watcher, Michael Rubin, wrote today, a transition in the event of Mr. Khamanei’s death “could be quick, slow or not at all.”

In theory, Mr. Rubin wrote, “the Assembly of Experts chooses the next leader, but they could take days, weeks, or months. Perhaps a singular candidate will consolidate control quickly, or perhaps those who suspect they cannot triumph will filibuster any choice.”

According to Mr. Rubin, one option could be a joint leadership, where President Raisi, Mojtaba Khamenei, or an as-yet unknown dark horse share power. Then again, a struggle among the above or a free-for-all could ensue as well, leading to chaos at Tehran. The capital is likely to be placed under strict curfew as soon as Mr. Khamanei’s death is announced, whenever that may be. 

The IRGC rank and file are uninterested in ruling, and therefore they need a front man, Mr. Amir said. Ayatollah Khamanei has provided it with the facade of leadership. Then again, Mr. Amir added, “perhaps it is the other way around. All in all, Khamanei is working on behalf of the Guards, and the Guards are working on Khamenei’s behalf.” 

With the IRGC’s dominance over so much in Iran, the Guards will seek a similarly convenient partner in Mr. Khamanei’s successor. That is, of course, unless Mr. Khamanei manages to last as long as Hyman Roth even as rumors of his death continue to swirl.  


Benny Avni is a columnist who has published in the New York Post, WSJOpinion, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Israel Radio, Ha’Aretz, and others. Once New York Sun, always New York Sun.

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