The Missing Ayatollah


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.

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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:

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.

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