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The Missing Ayatollah

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants his son to succeed him. But does a trip reminiscent of Prophet Muhammad’s also reveal something about his health?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is known for being a proud man. But although he’d be loath to admit publicly that his pride has been hurt, numerous recent reports in Iran’s conservative media suggest that it has been.

The focus of his frustration seems to be Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani. During both his recent trips to the holy city of Qom, Khorasani, a senior grand ayatollah there, refused to meet with Khamenei. Indeed, according to accounts from supporters of the democratic Green Movement, Khorasani didn’t even want to be in the same city as Khamenei and apparently tried to leave (although in the end he seems to have been warned off doing so by Iran's intelligence agency).

Since the snubs, the media has been feverishly working at coming up with articles that emphasize the supposedly high esteem in which Khorasani holds Khamenei. Some, for example, have emphasized Khorasani's fidelity to Khamenei’s leadership and how he has always had strong relations with the Supreme Leader, while others have tried to pin the blame for the incidents on Khorasani's anti-Sunni views. In an article published in the Tehran-based Parsine, for example, it has been sugegsted that Khorasani is arguing against the excessive rights being given to Sunnis in Iran. This contrasts with Khamenei’s views, and the media has been keen to suggest that the real reason for the snub was simply that Khorasani didn’t want to discuss this issue with Khamenei.

However, Khorasani wasn’t the only Ayatollah who refused to meet Khamenei—Mousavi Ardebili, Sanei, Sadegh Rohani and Asadollah Bayat Zanjani also refused to do so. So why are the press and supporters of Khamenei focusing on Khorasani?

The reason is likely tied to the main purpose of Khamenei's trip to Qom—to try to gather support for the appointment of his son, Mojtaba, as his successor. The Muslim story of Ghadir Khom is instructive here:

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When the Prophet Muhammad wanted to appoint his cousin*, Ali, as his successor, he travelled to an area known as Ghadir Khom, which is now situated in Saudi Arabia between Mecca and Medina. Shiites believe that it’s in this place, in front of 120,000 of his followers, that Muhammad appointed Ali as his successor. Since then, Shiites have commemorated the event as the festival of Ghadir Khom

On his trip to Qom, Khamenei appears to have taken a leaf out of Muhammad ’s book, with this latest trek being dubbed ‘Ghadir Qom,’ a phrase that was splashed over the front pages of Iranian newspapers.   

But despite the showmanship, Khamenei is certainly no prophet Muhammad. Indeed, he doesn’t even have the same following and legitimacy as his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As a result, if Khamenei wants to appoint his son as his successor, he’ll have to work all the harder.

This isn’t just because of his own lack of legitimacy, but also because Mojtaba simply doesn’t have the required religious credentials. The Iranian Constitution states that a future Supreme Leader first has to be an Ayatollah, which Mojtaba isn’t. Some believe that he’s currently a Hojatoleslam, a rank below, although even this point is in dispute.

This hasn’t stopped Khamenei from pressing his case—after all, Khamenei himself wasn’t a ‘real’ Ayatollah when he was appointed as Supreme Leader—he was in fact a Hojatoleslam, but was bumped up a rank by Ayatollah Khomeini to ensure a smooth succession. But Khomeini was the founder of the revolution, and so his words and commands carried significant weight. Khamenei simply doesn’t have this luxury.

This is where the importance of Khorasani comes in. Khorasani was one of Mojtaba's religious instructors in Qom, where he taught Mojtaba and his older brother. Such a relationship makes it obvious why Khamenei would want Khorasani’s backing and equally clear why the media is trying so hard to spin the snub—it hardly looks good when Mojtaba's religious teacher refuses to meet his father, let alone endorse him as successor.

This isn’t the first time Khorasani has tried to work against Khamenei—he also advised his son-in-law against accepting the post of chief justice that Khamenei had offered him, reportedly arguing that it would ‘destroy’ his future.

Yet all this doesn’t seem to have stopped Khamenei from trying to secure Mojtaba’s place as a future Supreme Leader. Indeed, Khamenei’s latest wheeze is to have people start using the title of ‘Imam’ (leader) when referring to him. Since his appointment in 1989, few people have used this title to address him. But these days, an increasing number of Khamenei loyalists, including Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, have been doing so. It’s a logical move—in Shiism, only Imams were able to pass on the title to their sons.

But there could be another reason the use of ‘Ghadir Qom’ to describe Khamenei's trip to the holy city may prove to be significant. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have travelled to Ghadir Khom to secure the succession for his cousin about a year before he died. If this was the case, and with the similar title given to Khamenei’s latest trip, it’s hard not to speculate over whether Khamenei is trying to convey a message about the condition of his own health, too.  

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*Referred to in some sources as his nephew.