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Crisis Response Hints At Early Stages Of Iranian Power Struggle

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (in chair), with Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (center) and parliament speaker Ali Larijani

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (in chair), with Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (center) and parliament speaker Ali Larijani

Over the past month, Iran has experienced some of its worst unrest since the founding of the Islamic Republic three decades ago. The focus has been on who should be the next president.

But in the not too distant future, many observers are convinced that Iran's political establishment will face a far greater crisis that revolves around who will succeed ailing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The religious leader is nominally above factional politics, but Khamenei has backed hard-liners in key battles with reformists, so conservatives appear to have little incentive to leave the succession to chance.

Moreover, the hard-line government's methods and determination to win the presidential elections are a signal to some that preparations for the succession battle might have already begun.

Setting The Stage

"I have a poor life. I have a disabled body. I have a little honor which you have given to me," Khamenei told a crowd of ritually sobbing loyalists on June 19, directing his words toward a central figure in Shi'ism, the 12th Imam, in the midst of Iran's street violence earlier this month. "I will take all of these in my hand and sacrifice them for this revolution and for Islam."

The pledge came as Khamenei was delivering the sermon for Friday Prayers at the Tehran University mosque -- something he does only in times of crisis or to mark special anniversaries.

This time, he used the occasion to warn opposition leaders that they would be responsible for any blood spilled in protests over the results of the previous week's presidential poll.

The public mention of his health -- Khamenei is believed to suffer from cancer -- helped drive home the urgency of his demand that the protesters leave the streets.

But if the hard-liners welcomed Khamenei's backing against the reformists -- something he also gave them in Iran's 1999 street unrest -- an unspoken question remained in the air.

The question was: With Khamenei ailing, who might help them next time?

The divisions between reformists and hard-liners run so deep now in Iran that the issue of who succeeds Khamenei will be immensely contentious. The competition is likely to be even more heated due to the fact that the reformists and hard-liners are relatively equally matched for the formal selection process.

Second Front

The supreme leader is chosen by an 86-member Assembly of Experts that includes both conservative and reformist clerics. The popularly elected body also has the power to dismiss a sitting leader if he is unable to fulfill his duties.

The current chairman of the assembly is the moderate conservative cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. A former president of the country, he is widely seen as having provided the financial backing for presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi's challenge of incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The hard-liners cannot be sure of controlling the succession process. But they have made huge gains over the past four years in controlling the government, and just won a second term based on official results.

That could offer the possibilities of a second front.

The supreme leader (right) with two of his sons, Mojtaba (center) and Mohsen
Some say the key to hard-line gains in the government has been close cooperation between one of the supreme leader's son, Mojtaba Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad.

Mojtaba Khamenei has a powerful unofficial position as the gatekeeper for all who want to contact his father. His role is reported to include acting as an interface between his father and the Office of the Supreme Leader.

The office has an extended staff of thousands to arrange the supreme leader's meetings and keep him up to date on all political developments in the country. It does that by close contact with the supreme leader's own appointed representatives to the executive branch, the military, the provincial governments, and virtually all major revolutionary, religious, and cultural organizations.

Executive Brawn

Mojtaba is widely credited with winning his father's endorsement for Ahmadinejad to run for president in 2005, when Ahmadinejad emerged from the shadows as a former mayor of Tehran but not a major national figure.

Ahmadinejad's victory has since led to radical changes in the makeup of Iran's executive branch, presumably again with the necessary support of the supreme leader.

In his first term, the president filled crucial ministries and other top posts with hard-line allies, including filling 14 of his 21 cabinet posts from among former members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) or its associated paramilitary, the Basij.

"The New York Times" recently reported that Ahmadinejad has replaced 10,000 government employees throughout the country's bureaucracies, including those who both ran this year's presidential election and the official offices that endorsed the results.

That makes Ahmadinejad almost as powerful a potential ally to Mojtaba as the supreme leader's son is to him.

Moreover, both men seem to share traits that would only help to cement an alliance.

Powerful Pedigree

Mojtaba, a reclusive figure in his 40s or early 50s, is said to be more hard-line than his father.

Like Ahmadinejad, he represents a second generation of leaders determined to protect the Shi'a-led revolution from the moderating effects of time. Again like Ahmadinejad, he is said to share a taste for messianic rhetoric and Islamic fervor.

There have always been allegations that Mojtaba -- given his father's total reliance upon him as a gatekeeper -- might be being groomed to succeed the supreme leader.

"These allegations were made in the aftermath of the 2005 presidential elections and they were especially expressed by then-presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi and indirectly also expressed by Ayatollah Rafsanjani," says Iran analyst Ali Alfoneh, of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. "And those allegations, especially made by Mehdi Karrubi, were to the effect that Mr. Mojtaba Khamenei, in cooperation with the Basij militia and leading commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, had secured Mr. Ahmadinejad an election victory just to in order to avoid Mr. Rafsanjani being the president."

But Alfoneh cautions that is it extremely difficult to obtain accurate information and that "it will be the task of historians to find out if Ayatollah Khamenei supported his son to succeed him."

Any grooming of Mojtaba to succeed his father could only appeal to many hard-liners who worry about who the next supreme leader will be. But making Mojtaba supreme leader is no easy task.

Double Standards?

The most immediate obstacle would be Mojtaba Khamenei's lack of sufficient religious qualifications. His holds the clerical rank of hojatoleslam, the rank below that of ayatollah.

It is the most widely held rank for graduates of theological seminaries and is a status enjoyed by thousands of people in Iran.

But it is also the same rank his father held when he was designated to succeed the Islamic Republic's first supreme leader and father of the Islamic revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

It was only the fact that Ali Khamenei was said to be personally designated by Khomeini to be his successor that made such a handover possible.

All this suggests that if the hard-line camp wants to control the succession process -- whether in favor of Mojtaba or anyone else -- it will need an extraordinarily well organized and united power base.

That organized power base may already exist in the form of Ahmadinejad's government, which is stacked with ultraconservatives and now looks likely to retain power for the next four years.
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