The Issue of the Supreme Leadership’s Transition in Iran
The issue of the selection of the Supreme Leader, who holds the most important political office in Iran, becomes a more controversial issue as the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gets older. According to the constitution of the country, in the event of dismissal, resignation, or death of the Supreme Leader, the Assembly of Experts is obliged to choose the new Supreme Leader. The candidacy of the members of this Assembly is approved by the Guardian Council, some of them are nominated directly by the Supreme Leader, and the people choose among these candidates. Therefore, the Supreme Leader directly elects the faqih members of the Guardian Council, this Council determines the candidacy of the members of the Assembly of Experts, and the Assembly elects the Supreme Leader. Accordingly, it is possible to say that there are three constitutional institutions that elect each other cyclically. The term of the members of the Assembly of Experts is eight years. The chairman of this Assembly and the Guardian Council is Ali Jannati, a figure close to Khamenei.
In 1985, Hossein Ali Montazeri was declared the successor of the aging Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, but Montazeri resigned from the succession in March 1989 and his resignation was accepted later because his criticism of some practices in the administration made him grow away from Khomeini. After the death of Khomeini in June 1989, then President Khamenei, who could not meet the Supreme Leadership criteria as of that day, was chosen for the Office by the Assembly of Experts as a result of the political engineering of the then President of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Reinforcing his political, legal, economic, and religious power in the system during his 33-year Supreme Leadership mission, Khamenei has become the absolute determinant and authority in Iran.
Rising Rumors About Khamenei's Health
Since the public is not informed about the health status of 83-year-old Khamenei, who is known to have had at least one operation until now, rumors about his health are reflected on social media and the press whenever a scheduled meeting is canceled or he is not seen on the screen for a while. Indeed, on Tuesday, September 6, the fifth term of the Assembly of Experts was opened in the absence of 30 of the 88 members and ended one day after the opening, again in the absence of 15 of them. Following the tradition, media outlets announced that the members would meet with Khamenei after the Assembly meeting, but the meeting was canceled. Although some news agencies reported that Khamenei was meeting with a group of athletes on September 12, there was no photo of the meeting, contrary to custom. On September 13, IRNA, citing the Gorgan Governorate, announced that on September 21, some members of the Basij in the city would meet with Khamenei via video conference. However, for some reason, the news was removed from the website a day later. Finally, on September 17, a photo of Khamenei's participation in the Arbaeen Ceremony and a short speech were published. Based on undisclosed sources, The New York Times reported that Khamenei underwent surgery in his absence for more than ten days. In addition to these, Khamenei has been looking tired in front of the screen in recent years and it is reflected in his speeches as well. Even though the rumors were prevented with the last photo, the necessity of the establishment to determine the next Supreme Leader has manifested itself, even if it is not shared with the public.
Rumors have spread again due to these unexpected developments. While some attributed the cancellation of the meetings to Khamenei's health condition, others claim that Khamenei did not accept to meet with the Assembly because some members of the Assembly of Experts oppose his son Mojtaba as the potential next Supreme Leader. Ghiaseddin Taha Mohammadi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, said at the end of the meeting that “The Assembly should put on its agenda who will be the next Supreme Leader so that the most worthy person among the ulama can be selected if anything happens”. It is possible to say that such statements are intended to prepare the public that it is time to appoint the successor of the Supreme Leader. On the other hand, it is stated that those who did not attend the session, including Sadeq Larijani, are against Mojtaba Khamenei being the next Supreme Leader after Ali Khamenei.
Who is Mojtaba Khamenei?
Mojtaba was born in 1969 in Mashhad as the second child of Khamenei. First, he received primary religious education. Then he completed his high school education at the Alavi Institute, the best school in Tehran, during his father's presidency (1981-1989). It is said that he made progress in his religious education with the help of the clergy who came to his father's office. Then he went to Qom and continued his education at the Research Institute of Imam Khomeini and Islamic Revolution under the administration of Mesbah Yazdi. At the age of 17, he was enrolled in the Habib Ibn Mazahir Battalion affiliated with the 27th Mohammad Rasulullah Division, and the commanders of this battalion currently constitute military figures close to him. In 1999, he married the daughter of Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, one of the country's leading political figures.
His name was first reported in the press in 2005 in the letter that Mehdi Karroubi wrote to Ali Khamenei, complaining that he was involved in the presidential election in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the controversial elections in 2009, his name came to the fore once again by the accusation of intervening in social events. It was during this period that came to mind for the first time that Mojtaba could be the next Supreme Leader after his father. For this reason, in the preface of The Charter of the Green Movement, which has recently been translated into Arabic, Mir Hossein Mousavi asks “Why has no one said that he has no such intention, although such news has been heard for 13 years?” The same question was asked by Karroubi too. After a while, a registration form was published on the internet, which is requested to be filled by those who want to attend the Kharij-e Fiqh course of "Ayatollah" Mojtaba Khamenei. This attempt was noticed immediately since the title of Ayatollah has never been given to a person who teaches this course for the first time. Indeed, according to tradition, only the clergy, who get the approval to do ijtihad after teaching the Kharij-e Fiqh course for years, can use this title.
Mojtaba's name has stood out as one of the defining figures in the Office of Supreme Leader over the past decade. In addition, it is stated that he took part in large-scale economic operations aimed at breaking the sanctions at home and abroad. Also, he used to be the patron of Qasem Soleimani in the Office of Supreme Leader. It is reflected in WikiLeaks documents that he oversees some activities of the IRGC Quds Force abroad. He was put on the sanctions list by the US Department of Treasury in 2019, along with several other names in Khamenei's office.
Why does the name Mojtaba Khamenei come to the fore?
People, who were considered to be the potential next Supreme Leader after Khamenei, either died or were excluded from the political scene. Although Ebrahim Raisi has been one of these potential candidates, his one-year performance as the President has reduced his chance. On the other hand, the attention has turned to Mojtaba since Khamenei has structured the legislation, execution, judiciary, and IRGC in a way that provides a suitable ground for Mojtaba to be the next Supreme Leader. Especially unofficial social media networks close to the establishment mention his active role in his father’s office, his participation in the decisions taken by the state, his competence to do ijtihad, and his close relationship with the IRGC. It is also emphasized that he can provide stability for Iran by staying in the Office of Supreme Leader for a long time like his father, due to his features, such as being a sayyid and a middle-aged man. It is almost as if perception is created to gain legitimacy and base in the society for his candidacy.
Before Ali Khamenei became the Supreme Leader, being a marja al-taqlid was a pre-condition to being the Supreme Leader according to the Constitution, and Khamenei had the title of “Hujjat al-Islam”. That is why there was no expectation that he would hold the office. However, currently, there is only the requirement of doing ijtihad in the Constitution (Article 109), and Mojtaba meets this criterion with the title of ayatollah. Moreover, Iran is not the Iran of 33 years ago. When Khomeini instructed Rafsanjani shortly before his death to prosecute the IRGC commanders found at fault in the Iran-Iraq War and to merge this structure with the army, the IRGC was in a weak phase. On the other hand, religious institutions and the ulama were more independent. Nevertheless, nowadays the IRGC is stronger than the government in some cases, and its role in the selection of the Supreme Leader cannot be ignored. Still, it cannot be argued that the all wings of the IRGC support Mojtaba as the next Supreme Leader. Furthermore, it is believed that the replacement of the team protecting Khamenei and the dismissal of Hossein Taib, the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Service, weakened Mojtaba's hand. There are reports that some marja al-taqlids who have strong authorities in Qom such as Wahid Khorasani, Mousa Shubayri Zanjani, and Makarem Shirazi oppose Mojtaba's succession and are willing to form a Supreme Leadership Council after Khamenei. It should also be noted that Mojtaba has no experience in public administration, but by emphasizing his duties in the administration of institutions affiliated with his father, this weakness can be eliminated with the label of "manager behind the scene”.
Considering the principles and ideals of the Revolution, the transformation of the Supreme Leadership into reign will be an argument that Mojtaba's opponents will use. Indeed, Khomeini did not let his sons be on the political scene while he was alive. On the other hand, the fact that Mojtaba is the son of Khamenei creates legitimacy for him among Khamenei's followers. For instance, in the Friday prayer khutba on September 2, the Friday Imam of the city of Baharestan identified Mojtaba Khamenei with Hasan Mojtaba, the son of his holiness Ali. Then he stated that if the imamah, which came from his holiness Ali, was not a shame for Hasan Mojtaba, then the Supreme Leadership is not a fault for Mojtaba Khamenei.
As can be seen, there is a segment in Iran that strives for Mojtaba to gain ground in the eyes of the people by making him shine, so to speak, and for society to get used to him. The fact that neither Ali Khamenei nor Mojtaba has denied these claims strengthens the allegations. It is also possible that the debate over the Supreme Leadership of Mojtaba is on the agenda as a stalking horse to prevent wearing off another candidate. What is thought-provoking is the emphasis that some significant actors who have been excluded from the system cannot inherit the Supreme Leadership office. Therefore, it seems that some circles in the establishment want Mojtaba to be the Supreme Leader. If he cannot be the Supreme Leader and the powers of the Supreme Leader are transferred to a council, on the other hand, they want him to be a member of this council. From this point of view, Mojtaba has a stronger candidate profile for Supreme Leadership than his father had 33 years ago. Finally, as Khamenei gets older, the transition of the Supreme Leadership will continue to be the subject of discussions as a matter that occupies minds more and more.