The state of health of Iran's spiritual ruler, the unelected successor to the founding father of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is of overriding concern in Tehran's power stakes. Therefore, the deteriorating health of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 71, is a closely guarded state secret. So too until the last minute, was the date of his visit to the town of Qom, the most important Shiite spiritual and religious center, second only to Najaf in Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 19.
The purpose of that visit, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources disclose, is to persuade the authoritative clerics of Qom to acknowledge his son Mojtaba, 43, as his successor. Khamenei, whom much of the clergy do not acknowledge as ayatollah, also wants to be confirmed as "imam."
Khamenei is in a hurry to settle these matters; he is receiving medical treatment for an undisclosed illness in the day-to-day care of two doctors.
The prevailing presumption is that he suffers from cancer, although no one knows what kind or how advanced it is. Western intelligence reports tentatively diagnose him as suffering from lung cancer as well as liver and gallbladder disease, but these reports are unconfirmed.
It is common knowledge that he was a heavy smoker for many years and fond of alcohol, although both violate his religious beliefs. In his younger years, Khamenei enjoyed the reputation of a bon vivant, partygoer and lover of music and song.
He scheduled his visit to Qom, his first in 10 years, to fall on or around the traditional birthday of the seventh Shiite Imam and ordered a grandiose reception prepared.
Never acknowledged as Ayatollah, Khamenei seeks title of Imam
Against some local disapproval, religious seminaries and state schools were ordered to shut down to allow students to take part in celebrations. Gaudily-colored booklets were distributed to the children to honor "the glorious leader who is coming to our city" and referring to Khamenei as "Imam," a title reserved for twelve members of the holy dynasty of the founders of the Shiite movement.
Only the revolution's founder Khomeini dared to claim this title and he too was mockingly derided as "the thirteenth imam."
The incumbent spiritual leader's ranking as ayatollah has never been confirmed by Iran's senior clergy who regard him as short on pious scholarship. Twenty years ago, he proclaimed himself spiritual leader of Shiites outside Iran but there too he found himself outranked by Grand Ayatollahs Ali Sistani in Iraq and Hassan Fadlallah in Lebanon.
At home, he showered rank, funds and political backing on high-ranking clerics to win their acceptance, gaining such prominent supporters as Ayatollahs Hossein Nouri Hamedani and Ahmad Janati. He also tried in recent years to transfer huge sums, running into hundreds of millions of dollars, to the courts of the senior clerics and their institutions in the city of Qom. But they drew the line when he tried to infringe on their independence and make them kowtow to the government.
The great Khomeini's grandson challenges Khamenei's son
Allegations that last year's presidential election was rigged energized the clergy's resentment of Khamenei after he threw all his weight behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as victor. Not a single senior cleric followed his lead.
For the past eighteen months, Khamenei has worked hard to silence his religious opponents. He closed the bank accounts of Ayatollahs Vahid Khorassani and Mojtaba Shirazi, denying them access to the millions of dollars contributed to them yearly by supporters. Others were subjected to strong-arm tactics and intimidation. The three grand ayatollahs who come out openly against him: Hossein Ali Montazeri, Yousef Sanei and Asadollah Bayat-Zaniani, had their websites shut down.
However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources, his opponents have not been idle.
The great Khomeini's grandson, Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, ostracized by the regime since he came out in support of the Green opposition, is being put up against Khamenei's son as candidate for next Spiritual Leader.