Iran’s Next Ayatollah

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On July 28, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei marked 29 years since a referendum made his election official. Today, at 79 years old, he is still relatively young in the Islamic Republic’s gerontocracy.  The chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts and Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, is 91.  But persistent rumors of cancer have plagued Khamenei for years and he has publicly acknowledged his mortality. For him, these must be difficult and disappointing days. Iran’s revolution is fraying, and the jockeying among his potential successors tends to spike whenever his health appears to decline. Khamenei’s worries regarding the future of the revolution are well-founded. The current unrest may not yet threaten the regime, but the persistent turbulence and years of political infighting reflect deep economic, environmental, and political failings which seem to defy solution.

Khamenei’s main concerns are the regime’s inability to meet basic social obligations and flagging popular support for the revolutionary ideals which have served as Iran’s stated moral and intellectual foundations for almost a half a century. Like most aged revolutionaries, he appears frustrated at endless elite frictions, a dynamic he himself fostered to weaken potential rivals. He openly criticizes government failings to respond to societal concerns, but bristles at what he perceives as the failure of Iran’s youth to appreciate the sacrifices of his generation and the dangers of Western culture. Finally, recent political leaders have been disappointing. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become a corrosive figure; while current President Hassan Rouhani and former President Mohammad Khatami seem too willing to engage the West. For all of these reasons, he must recognize that the selection of his successor will be a crucial inflection point in Iran’s history.

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