After Raisi’s death, speculation about Iran’s next supreme leader focuses on Khamenei’s son

He is known as a man in the shadows of Iranian politics. Yet Mojtaba Khamenei has a powerful influence over a country that rarely sees or hears from him.

For years, there has been speculation that the son of Iran’s supreme leader would be a potential candidate to succeed his father, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

That speculation has increased with the death of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, who many analysts said was being groomed to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader. Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday will not only trigger new presidential elections. It could also change the dynamic around the selection of Ayatollah Khamenei’s replacement.

“When people started talking about Mojtaba as a possible successor in 2009, I considered it a cheap rumor,” said Arash Azizi, a Clemson University professor who specializes in Iran. “But it’s not that anymore. It is now very clear that he is a notable figure. And it is notable because he has been almost completely invisible in the public eye.”

However, a growing number within the Iranian political establishment have begun to publicly support him, Azizi added.

Khamenei, 65, is the second child of the ayatollah’s six children. A hardline conservative, he grew up in the clerical and political elite of the Islamic Republic, established in 1979, and later fostered ties within the powerful Revolutionary Guards. Today, he is believed to play a pivotal role in managing his father’s office.

But many Iran experts dismiss the idea that the ayatollah’s own son could replace him as a danger to the system.

Since the 1979 revolution deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a small group of Shiite clerics who rule Iran have had far more power than elected officials. But a fundamental principle of the Islamic Republic was that it ended hereditary rule.

“If the supreme leader becomes a hereditary system, what does that mean? It means the system is dead,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, an Iran analyst and editor of Amwaj, an independent online media outlet that focuses on Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.

Mojtaba Khamenei teaches at Iran’s largest seminary, in Qom, but other religious leaders have questioned his credentials. He has not achieved a high rank within the Shiite clerical hierarchy, something long considered necessary to assume the role of supreme leader.

However, where he seems expert is in political maneuvering.

A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Khamenei befriended fellow soldier Hossein Taeb, who later became leader of the Revolutionary Guard’s paramilitary unit, the Basij, and later led its intelligence forces for many years. Khamenei is also believed to have other high-level ties to Iran’s security apparatus, Azizi said.

Iranian reformists accused Khamenei of playing a major role in the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline populist, who unexpectedly defeated the leading candidates at the time.

In 2009, after Ahmadinejad’s re-election against reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, anti-government protests spread across the country. In response to Khamenei’s alleged role in the election, as well as rumors about his succession, some opposition activists chanted: “Mojtaba, may you die and not become supreme leader.”

Then in 2022, in another wave of anti-government protests, Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011, asked Ayatollah Khamenei to dispel rumors that his son would succeed him. The ayatollah did not respond then.

But he did so earlier this year, when the question of succession becomes much more pressing.

Cleric Mahmoud Mohammadi Araghi, a member of the Assembly of Experts that elects the supreme leader, told state news agency ILNA that Ayatollah Khamenei was vehemently opposed to his son being considered.

The Assembly of Experts must unanimously elect the supreme leader. Until then, they could elect a leadership council of three or five members to govern the country.

Ultimately, the fate of any potential successor lies within an opaque system that critics say has become less transparent in recent years.

“The reality is that no one knows,” Shabani said. “And that’s crazy. “There is no transparency in a process that affects millions of Iranians.”

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