After Raisi’s Death, Speculation Over Iran’s Next Supreme Leader Turns to 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 him.

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

That speculation has grown with the death of Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, who many analysts said was being groomed to replace the supreme leader, who is 85. Mr. Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday will not only trigger new presidential elections. It could also shift the dynamics around the selection of Ayatollah Khamenei’s replacement.

“When people started talking about Mojtaba as a potential successor in 2009, I considered it a cheap rumor,” said Arash Azizi, a lecturer at Clemson University who focuses on Iran. “But it’s not that anymore. It’s very clear now that he is a remarkable figure. And he’s remarkable because he’s been almost entirely invisible in the public eye.”

Yet a growing number within Iran’s political establishment have begun to publicly endorse him, added Mr. Azizi.

Mr. Khamenei, 65, is the second son of the ayatollah’s six children. A conservative hard-liner, 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 critical role in running 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 that run Iran have held far more power than elected officials. But a foundational principle of the Islamic Republic was that it ended hereditary rule.

“If the supreme leader turns into 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 disputed his credentials. He has not achieved a high rank within the Shiite clerical hierarchy, something long seen as necessary for taking on the role of supreme leader.

Where he seems adept, however, is in political maneuvering.

A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Khamenei became a friend of his fellow soldier Hossein Taeb, who later became leader of the Revolutionary Guards’ paramilitary unit, the Basij, and later led its intelligence forces for many years. Mr. Khamenei is believed to have other high-level links to Iran’s security apparatus as well, said Mr. Azizi.

Mr. Khamenei was accused by Iranian reformists of playing a significant role in the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line populist, who unexpectedly beat the leading candidates at the time.

In 2009, after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election against the reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, antigovernment protests swept the country. Responding to Mr. Khamenei’s suspected role in the election, as well as rumors of his succession, some opposition activists chanted, “Mojtaba, may you die and not become supreme leader.”

Then, in 2022, in another wave of antgovernment protests, Mr. Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011, called on Ayatollah Khamenei to dispel the rumors about his son succeeding him. The ayatollah did not respond then.

But earlier this year, he did, as the issue of succession becomes far more pressing.

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

The Assembly of Experts must unanimously select the supreme leader. Until then, they could choose a three- or five-member leadership council to run the country.

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

“The reality is that nobody knows,” said Mr. Shabani. “And that is crazy. There is zero transparency on a process that affects millions of Iranians.”

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