A storm of speculation was touched off by a chance remark by Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak in an interview with Lally Weymouth on June 21: Asked if he believed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had lost a lot of power, Barak said:
“The real leader is Khamenei. I heard he is going to retire next year. Basically, [Iran’s leadership] is a collective.”
Ruling quarters in many capitals, including Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Riyadh, wondered if the Israeli minister had got hold of a rare piece of intelligence indicating that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was at the end of his rope and ready to name a successor. If that was the case, it opened up two paths of speculation about the wily ayatollah’s plans: Either he was looking for the kudos of an accommodation with the six world powers that recognized Iran’s status as a world nuclear power – so as to retire in a blaze of glory; or he was planning to dissociate himself from Iran’s consent to relinquish its nuclear ambitions by stepping down beforehand.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Iranian sources have found no corroboration for Ehud Barak’s assumption of Khamenei’s early retirement. Indeed they stress he is fully in control of state affairs in Tehran despite longstanding fragile health.
The supreme leader is indeed ailing, but his ill health is deliberately exaggerated as part of a disinformation campaign to accomplish certain goals – both domestic and in the nuclear sphere.
Using ill health as a tool of power
Khamenei has pulled this stunt before. Five years ago, he was misreported to be “dying,” only to make a miraculous recovery when he got his way.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources provide an exclusive rundown of the supreme leader’s multiple afflictions:
He needs painkillers for his right arm which was left paralyzed in a bombing attack by opposition Mujahedin Khalq activists during Friday prayers in the second year of the Islamic Revolution – that is 12 years ago.
At 73, he suffers indispositions often associated with age: vascular problems, a weak pulse, unstable blood pressure tending to high levels and recently declines in hearing and vision. He also has liver problems and shortness of breath.
But Khamenei has given up taking the medication advised by his doctors and relies heavily on his panacea – opium, which he has smoked regularly for 25 years.
Every day, between two and four p.m., the Iranian leader goes off to a private room to which entry is barred and smokes opium. He smokes for an hour before retiring for the night to relieve pain and help him sleep, and for three hours before a public appearance or speech.
This addiction has affected is lungs and blurred his senses for hours at a time.
Information about his medical condition is hard to come by because his doctors are not permitted to treat anyone else and must perform tests and other work at the private hospital inside his palace.
Exaggerated medical reports to keep US, Israeli attacks at bay
Reports in recent years that he suffers from cancer were never corroborated despite the best efforts of the CIA and Mossad and other foreign intelligence agencies.
According to at least two senior DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Tehran, Khamenei is in the first stages of liver cancer and refuses chemotherapy for fear word of his condition may leak out.
But since he shows no outward sign of declining health, it is very likely that his advisers are pushing the false picture of a leader at his last gasp to achieve two goals:
1. To persuade Israel and the West he is on death’s bed. Since Iran is on the threshold of change, he hopes they will decide it is not worth their while to attack its nuclear sites now but rather wait and see what unfolds in Tehran.
2. To keep an eye out for reactions to the “sad news,” in order to catch out signs of disloyalty in his circle and among those who would welcome his disappearance, especially Ahmadinejad’s followers.
Twice in the past, Khamenei has tugged at popular heartstrings to win sympathy. Exactly three years ago, in June 2009, when Tehran’s streets filled with demonstrators protesting the allegedly rigged presidential election, he took to the Friday prayers podium for an emotional lament that life was not worth living amid the anguish of strife.
And confronted 25 years ago with widespread student unrest which threatened to topple the regime, he burst into bitter tears during a speech, saying it was more than flesh and blood could bear and he would soon be gone.
An early crop of rivals for the succession
Still, the hyperbole on the leader’s failing health may be working a lot better than he intended.
The Council of Experts, which is responsible for choosing Islamic Iran’s supreme leader, recently met in secret session to review the various options. Its members made sure to hand a minutes of the meeting to Khamanei post haste.
But meanwhile, the first crop of pretenders for the seat of the “dying” ayatollah has sprung up.
Our intelligence and Iranian sources mention the four most outstanding:
Mojtaba Khamenei, 37, the third of the leader’s four sons, is the strongest contestant.
He has been entrusted in recent years with many diplomatic, economic and international state missions and does not conceal his ambition to succeed his father. He claims the unqualified backing of the Revolutionary Guards as a disciple of its most extreme religious figure, Hossein Allah-Karim.
Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, 64, the Doyen of Ayatollahs, was born to an Iranian family in Najaf, one of the Shiite shrine cities of Iraq.
While generally hiding his political light under a bushel, he has become of Iran’s most influential clerics. Since 1999, Sharoudi has served as head of Iran’s judiciary. He is a member of the Council of Experts and also the Constitutional Council. He also aspires to succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, who is revered as world leader by most members of the Shiite sect of Islam
Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, 79. He was former mentor to President Ahmadinejad until a year ago when the president began falling out of favor.
Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the iconic founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution, is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources as having an eye on the leadership post.
An extremist, he has yet to attain the credentials for gaining the rank of ayatollah. But he is tenacious and decisive and has told associates more than once that after Khamenei is gone, “the old glory must be restored” – i.e., the revolution should be restored to the Khomeini family.
Irrespective of his poor health, Khamenei is in full command of Iran’s state affairs. He stays in touch with members of the National Security Council and Expediency Council, as well as military and Revolutionary Guards chiefs, but he makes the decisions and they are personally relayed to the various arms of the regime. For now, his authority is unquestioned.