Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled a remarkable 28 years, and counting. As the successor to Islamic Revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader's mix of pious rigor, domestic authority and geopolitical cunning have long kept him a step ahead of his rivals, at home and abroad. Rumors that his health was failing turned out to be false. Still, Khamenei will not rule forever. We imagined how the pivotal battle over his succession could play out.
August 22, 2018*
The rumors were hanging thick in the summer heat even if Tehran's newsstands did not breathe a word. Was he dying? Was he already dead? Who would come next? Men whispered in cafés in the Iranian capital as ceiling fans whirred, though the only thing anyone knew for sure was that the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had not been seen in public since Friday prayers on June 8. That was more than two months earlier.
On this day, for the first time, reports of his death were suddenly spreading across Western media — and trending on social media. To be precise, the rash of headlines, tweets and non-stop cable news commentary could be traced back to a single anonymous source who'd told the BBC that the 79-year-old leader had "finally" (a word that recurred, perhaps unkindly) succumbed to the cancer he had reportedly battled for years. The actual cause of death, and the exact date, would never be revealed by the regime. But yes, the Supreme Leader was gone, and virtually all the TV talking heads agreed that choosing a successor to lead the great Shia nation could not have come at a more delicate moment for the country, and the world.
Khamenei had spent a lifetime acquiring an assortment of enemies at home and abroad. His partisans long referred to him as a "living martyr" for losing the use of an arm after a bomb attack in the early 1980s. Pictures showed he had one "limping" hand, rather like the last Kaiser's spoiled, shorter arm. That may have been the only thing Khamenei, a man of humble origins, shared with the German Emperor William II — well, that and warmongering. During the Iran-Iraq war, before rising to be Supreme Leader, he had forged a special tie with the Revolutionary Guard, and held an unflinching view of death counts. The Iranian chief's last stain of brutality had been in Syria, backing Bashar al-Assad come hell or high water and over the corpses of hundreds of thousands. Hardliners in Tehran liked to point out that Syria has largely been at peace since Assad's bloodiest assault in Homs in January 2018.
Anyone who publicly announced his death could be viewed as his "designated" successor, and there was no consensus on a name.
It was Iran's hardest of hardliners now working furiously to install one of their own as Khamenei's successor. But they had to move in official silence — even though most of their countrymen had already clicked onto foreign websites to read news of Grand Ayatollah's death. Anyone who publicly announced his death could be viewed as his "designated" successor, and there was no consensus on a name.
They needed to work out quietly who the next Supreme Leader would be. The reformists had a few under-the-radar moderate candidates in mind. The hardliners, too, knew they had to tread carefully. Or a conservative reformist — better yet, a straw man?
The man who would have been Khamenei's putative successor was a former chum, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, but he had died 18 months earlier at the age of 82. Rumors of him being poisoned at the time were dismissed. Three weeks earlier, a German daily had dredged up the issue to authoritatively declare Rafsanjani had, indeed, been fed arsenic. That news was now fueling gossip about Khamenei's demise.
Despite the rumor and intrigue, one obvious candidate for the job was President Hassan Rouhani, a sensible figure who had won a second term in 2017. But he'd begun to lose credibility for failing to stand up to the recently installed 33-year-old King Mohammad of Saudi Arabia, who was itching for Sunni-Shia proxy wars across the Middle East. Rouhani also was still trying to figure out how to handle the endless whims and bluster of the Great Satan's commander-in-chief. Donald Trump taunted Rouhani as "that Persian snowflake" and the two had already waged a few wars on Twitter much to the amusement of ordinary Iranians.
In any case, since early July, Rouhani was off of all social media. Revolutionary guards, too, had been asked to stop provoking U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. Not now.
The country's senior ayatollahs sipped their tea and wondered who else could take Khamenei's place. What about Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, the chief of the judiciary? Too inexperienced.
Ebrahim Raisi, the guardian of Imam Reza Shrine? Too political.
Khamenei's own son Mojtaba, a mid-ranking cleric, could benefit from immediate sympathy, but most Iranians considered him little more than a thug.
a twist that no one could have expected. It began with chants during a public mourning rally on Friday, Sept. 7
The choice was in the hands of the Assembly of Experts, the closed elective body of 88 Mujtahids, Islamic theologians, whose sole duty is the election and oversight of the Supreme Leader. Foreign commentators all made a point of noting that the Iranian public had no voice in choosing the man who would have the final say on everything from religious edicts to economic policy to the armed forces.
But when Khamenei's death was finally confirmed, and a three-day mourning observed, a strange cocktail of Islamic revolutionary nostalgia and human rights demands would add a twist that no one could have expected. It began with chants during a public mourning rally on Friday, Sept. 7: "Khomeini! Khomeini!"
Several observers initially thought it was simply a show of reverence for the Revolution's founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. But it quickly became clear that the chants were for his grandson.
Though lacking the steely gaze of his grandfather, Hassan Khomeini shared a whiff of his charisma. But what mattered more was the 46-year-old cleric's full-blown reformist vision for Iran, which had led conservatives to reject him two years earlier for a spot on the elective Assembly of Experts.
the international media had the storyline they'd been looking for.
Needless to say, once people started calling his name on the streets of Tehran, the international media had the storyline they'd been looking for. For two days, Khomeini bided his time, well aware that he was up against an array of domestic traditional forces. Then, convinced that he had a brief window of opportunity, the ambitious young cleric decided to play the foreign card. It had worked a long time ago, in a very different context, for his grandfather, who had famously spoken with reporters in exile near Paris in 1978.
But the live CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour would be Hassan Khomeini's first and last foreign television appearance. When his death from a "sudden and tragic heart attack" was announced four days later, the path was cleared for a little-known hardliner from the Caspian Sea city of Rasht with a taste for posting holy site photographs on Instagram and anti-Sunni rhetoric on Twitter. It was the enemy the Saudi King and American President could have only dreamed of.