Back in October, few news outlets picked up on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s rumored collapse and 3 week hiatus from the public spotlight. During that time, not only did he not send his well-wishes to Iranians travelling to Mecca for the Hajj, he also skipped his address celebrating Eid-eh Ghadeer, which is an extremely important holiday for Shias and the entire religious establishment of the Islamic Republic. However, this is not the first time Khamenei’s health issues have been publicly noted.
Back in 2010, WikiLeaks released a U.S. diplomatic cable claiming that Khamenei had Leukemia. Due to the secretive nature of the Supreme Leader, such claims are difficult to verify. What made October’s situation different was the fact that Iranian journalist Hossein Rostami told the Times of London that “it is not good news,” regarding the Ayatollah and told Khamenei’s supporters to “pray deeply for him” – a rare moment of exposure that reached Iran’s national media. Since his hiatus back in October, the Supreme Leader has spoken and been seen publically multiple times -especially since the breakthrough interim agreement on the country’s nuclear program in November. Nevertheless, his strange disappearance in October and the rare public discussion of his health begs the question of how long the 74-year old Khamenei can remain the country’s Supreme Leader.
What could happen post-Khamenei?
According to Article 111 of Iran’s constitution, a council consisting of the President, head of the Judiciary, and a faqih, or expert of Islamic Jurisprudence, from the Guardian Council will take over. Meanwhile, the Assembly of Experts chooses a successor. Despite this, Khamenei may use his influence to choose a successor privately much like Khomeini did before his death in 1989. However, without the weight that Khomeini carried, the choosing of a new Supreme Leader may remain in the hands of the Assembly of Experts and therefore fall into Iran’s political fray - again pitting the moderates and reformers against the hardliners. To avoid this struggle for the all-important and largely permanent position, such a council like the one that would be temporarily established may be the viable, long term option as voices from both ends of Iran’s political spectrum could continue to be heard at the top.
What does this have to do with Iran’s nuclear program?
As President Rouhani struggles at home with hardliners who are upset about his outreach to the West, the future of Iran hangs in balance. If Rouhani fails, the hardliners will be able to say “I told you so” and shift Iran back to the right. However, a Rouhani victory could lend him greater legitimacy in his efforts to shift Iran to a better standing at home and abroad. Therefore, his success or failure in the nuclear talks will have a huge influence on the type of Supreme Leader that will replace Khamenei.
Rouhani will be President for the next 4 or quite possibly the next 8 years. This makes the chance of Iran choosing a new Supreme Leader during that time period even more likely. Khamenei’s health issues as depicted lately indicate that it is more likely to happen in the short term rather than long term - and even possibly in 2014.