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Iran: Supreme Leader Khamenei says his son won’t replace him. But don’t rule it out

Conservative sources say Mojtaba still has a chance at succeeding his father, despite the briefings suggesting the opposite
Son of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mojtaba Khamenei in 2019 (Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto)
Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei in 2019 (Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto)
By MEE correspondent in Tehran

As Ali Khamenei grows older, and no clear favourite to replace the 84-year-old as Iran’s supreme leader emerges, speculation has increased around a possible succession by his son Mojtaba.

Yet a member of the Assembly of Experts, the body of senior figures that elects supreme leaders, has insisted Khamenei opposes the idea of his son one day leading the Islamic Republic.

Khamenei rejects talk of the assembly even considering the possibility of one of his four sons becoming supreme leader, Mahmoud Mohammadi Araghi said in an interview with the ILNA news agency last month.

He recounted an occasion where discussion arose about one of the supreme leader's sons, who, according to Araghi, possesses high-level Islamic fiqh expertise, meaning knowledge of sharia.

According to Araghi, Khamenei intervened, deeming it akin to raising the possibility of hereditary leadership, and forbidding any further examination of his suitability.

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Araghi then shared another anecdote, in which Khamenei made clear that he opposes the close associates of senior leaders, especially their children, from accepting any official positions.

In November, a member of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Rahim Tavakol, revealed a secret three-person commission had been set up to draft a list of people who could succeed Khamenei.

Qualified candidates undergo an evaluation before consultation with Khamenei, Tavakol said.

It is believed that it was during discussions in this commission that the supreme leader made his feelings known about Mojtaba.

The rise of Mojtaba

The debate over Khamenei’s succession has grown increasingly heated.

Critics of the supreme leader - both at home and abroad - have accused the establishment of paving the way for Mojtaba to replace him.

There have been rumours since 2005 that Mojtaba, Khamenei’s second of four sons, plays a leading role in decision-making, whispers that have only grown over the years.

During the 2005 elections, reformist leader Mehdi Karroubi wrote to Khamenei urging him to curb Mojtaba’s influence.

He warned the supreme leader about what he perceived as "Mojtaba's interventions in support of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad" and called on Khamenei to confront them.

Ali Khamenei casts his votes in the Assembly of Experts elections on 1 March in Tehran (Reuters/Sobhan Farajvan)
Ali Khamenei casts his votes in the Assembly of Experts elections on 1 March in Tehran (Reuters/Sobhan Farajvan)

Following the 2009 disputed election that was declared for Ahmadinejad, thousands of Iranian protesters chanted "Mojtaba you will die, but won't be the leader" in cities across the country.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist leader under house arrest since declaring the 2009 elections rigged, issued a statement two years ago warning against "hereditary leadership".

"Have the 2,500-year-old dynasties in Iran returned for a son to ascend to power after his father?" he said.

"For 13 years, we've heard about this conspiracy. If they are not truly pursuing it, why don't they once deny such intentions?"

In an indirect response, the Assembly of Experts then insisted that the supreme leader’s selection process would be based on "meritocracy and choosing the most qualified".

Pathway blocked?

A well-informed conservative source was left in no doubt that Araghi’s intervention was not made off the cuff.

"Mohammadi Araghi is also the little-known chairman of the leader's office in Qom, and what he said was undoubtedly pre-planned - a decision to test society's reaction and make the public less sensitive to Mojtaba," he told Middle East Eye, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I believe Khamenei may say whatever regarding his son, but this doesn't necessarily mean blocking Mojtaba's path to leadership. Moreover, if the Assembly names him as leader, it would be considered a democratic election by members voted in by the people, thereby bypassing concerns of a monarchistic nature."

Another conservative figure, who worked within the Iranian ruling establishment, noted that Khamenei didn’t actually deny in Araghi’s anecdote that Mojtaba had the requisite jurisprudential and political qualifications to become supreme leader.

'The key point is that Khamenei has practically affirmed the political and jurisprudential capabilities of Mojtaba'

- Conservative source

“Rather, he only expressed concerns about the hereditary semblance of leadership determination. Therefore, this could merely be a political formality. The key point is that Khamenei has practically affirmed the political and jurisprudential capabilities of Mojtaba," he said.

"Suppose the leader is opposed to this idea, but whatever is decided now can change later, especially since Mojtaba now holds significant power and allies.”

The source raised the example of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah naming Mohammed bin Nayef as a deputy crown prince to direct future lines of succession. Yet, the source noted, Mohammed bin Salman was able to remove Mohammed bin Nayef in 2017 and replace him as crown prince. “Therefore, nothing can be finalised and certain.”

The conservative source said he had also heard Khamenei had blocked Mojtaba’s path to the leadership.

“He had found out that Mojtaba was planning for such a position by publishing a manuscript of his fatwa book. But the leader stated that he didn't want the Islamic Republic to turn into a monarchy," he said.

"Despite all this, I believe that after the leader's death, everything can change, and Mojtaba could rise to power."

Ultraconservative efforts

Earlier this month, Iranians voted in elections for the 88-member Assembly of Experts. It’s expected to be the last election for the body before Khamenei’s death, when it will be tasked to choose the next leader.

The poll and the vetting of candidates by the Guardian Council were widely seen as indicators of who might eventually come out on top. Notably, the Guardian Council controversially barred former president Hassan Rouhani and other moderate figures.

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Among those jockeying for power, according to a prominent cleric based in the holy city of Qom, is a group of ultra-conservative “radicals” known as the Endurance Front.

Established in 2012 by ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazidi, who led the group until his death in 2021, the Endurance Front has members and supporters across Iranian institutions, holding a significant presence in parliament.

“I've learned that they harbour ambitions and lobby for someone very close to Mesbah Yazdi to become the next leader," he said.

This person was not President Ebrahim Raisi, he added.

However, Raisi nonetheless has his ambitions. According to an editor at a conservative newspaper, Raisi's team and his inner circle, including his sons-in-law, want to position him as a possible successor to Khamenei.

Yet the editor told MEE he believes Raisi has no chance due to perceived incompetence, which has tarnished his image in recent years. "Any slight chance he may have had is now considered lost," said the editor.

"Sadeq Amoli Larijani, the former judiciary chief and a conservative, used to be a strong candidate. But he is now excluded from the game by others."

Rouhani’s role

Though conservatives have a firm grip on the government and the most powerful Iranian institutions, reformist and moderate figures have not given up hope of becoming supreme leader.

According to a well-connected reformist activist, both Rouhani and Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, see themselves as potential leaders.

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The establishment tried to pre-empt this, the activist said, by rejecting their candidacy for the Assembly of Experts before the last election.

Nothing is certain, he stressed, noting that being disqualified from the Assembly of Experts does not disqualify a candidate for supreme leader. Rouhani's adept lobbying skills could sway Assembly members when the right time comes.

Personally, however, “Rouhani's chance [of becoming supreme leader] is very low and he needs some sort of miracle."

Amid all this speculation comes another anecdote, once again coming from Mahmoud Mohammadi Araghi.

According to Araghi, Khamenei said that when he was selected as supreme leader to replace the late Ruhollah Khomenei, Ahmad Khomeini, the late leader's son, told the Assembly:

"You've chosen someone very good. You've chosen a young leader. For now, there is no need to choose another leader soon."

Mojtaba, it should be noted, is just 55.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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