Speculation about the health of Iran’s Supreme Leader have thrown a spotlight on what - and who - comes next for the Islamic republic.

An article in Newsweek on Sunday caused a furore of speculation on social media about Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, saying he had “transferred his powers to his son as concerns about his failing health have mounted”.  

Newsweek's story was based on a single claim in a thread written in Arabic by Iranian journalist Mohamad Ahwaze. “Iranian sources confirm that the duties and powers of Supreme Leader Khamenei have been transferred to his son Mojtaba Khamenei,” said the tweet. Newsweek then distanced itself from the claim saying it has not been able to independently verify it. 

The story was never substantiated nor officially reported by Iranian media. But it caused serious concern due to the fragile political conditions that exist in Iran today and the possible consequences for both the people of Iran and the future of the nuclear deal.

Several news organisations built on what increasingly looked like misinformation. “Unconfirmed Reports: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is Dead” The Jewish Press headlined

Then came the retractions: “Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is alive and well,” Times of Israel reported. “Reports of Khamenei’s death were grossly exaggerated,” it said.

Iran later reported the Ayatollah was in good health.

Although done in bad taste, there was nonetheless genuine concern as to what may become of Iran if there’s any change in leadership at this complex juncture.

Suffering from ill health since 2014, the 81-year-old Khamenei has been looking frailer lately, often reading from his notes rather than his customary articulation of sentences from memory.

But more importantly, he has been losing support with increasing calls for his downfall.

Last February’s parliamentary elections had the lowest-ever turnout. The overall apathy, especially amongst young people, followed the brutal crackdown of the November 2019 protests and the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner in January this year.

A fraught succession process

Khamenei has been ruling for three decades and before that he was president for two terms. As he looks around him, many of that first generation of revolutionary ayatollahs and some of the senior ayatollahs who had in the past two decades moved to prominence have all passed away.  

One prominent cleric, Mohammad Yazdi, died on Wednesday. Other senior clerics such as Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and Ahmad Jannati, head of Guardian Council, are both old and unwell.

With that in mind, Khamenei must be wondering who would qualify as the Velayat-e Faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist) to follow him. In theory, the post is expected to be occupied by a prominent cleric; someone charismatic and popular who can attract a following and financial support.

The head of the Judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, and his predecessor Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, are two contenders. However, neither benefits from charisma nor popularity. The former is accused of human rights violations and the latter is being investigated for alleged corruption.

There is extensive rivalry and tension at the highest levels of leadership awaiting that transition.

In theory, Article 111 of the Iranian Constitution stipulates that when the leader dies, “a leadership council consisting of the President, head of the Judiciary, and a Faqih from the Guardian Council chosen by the Expediency Council” will temporarily take over all his duties.

For that reason, succession rumours about his son Mojtaba cannot hold much weight. 

While Mojtaba has influence in power centres, he lacks popularity and the required clerical qualifications to be a leader. Additionally, the Constitution does not allow direct appointment of the next leader.

As things stand, the leadership council would consist of President Hassan Rouhani plus the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-backed Judiciary chief Raisi, and a cleric.

Yet in practice, once the leader passes away the IRGC will immediately weigh in to influence the succession.

Khamenei’s major reshuffles in the IRGC were another indication that he’s preparing for his departure. He appointed the most hardline commanders with close loyalty to his vision and sworn opposition to talks with the West, something that has caused disgruntlement inside the IRGC.

The question now is what will happen in the next few months if US President-elect Joe Biden moves to revive the Iran nuclear deal and thereby strengthen Rouhani’s hand, who is pro-negotiations.

Rouhani had criticised the IRGC-dominated parliament for sabotaging that chance by legislating to dramatically increase nuclear enrichment. The Guardian Council held back for a while from approving it but finally gave in. This indicated a slight edge towards Rouhani’s position.

Increased tension over Iran’s nuclear program and incidents like the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has caused a rift among its intelligence apparatus of who is to blame for security lapses, and only further complicates the question of leadership transition.

Irrespective of who is in the leadership position, the possibility of lifting of sanctions by the new US administration is potentially creating new dynamics within the power centres in Iran. If these are rapidly utilised while Rouhani is still in power, there might still be a chance for salvaging the nuclear deal.

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