FILE PHOTO: The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

January 21, 2021

Supreme leader’s son prepares for his political future

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The son of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is preparing to secure his political influence and may seek to succeed his father. Khamenei’s health is reportedly declining rapidly. Khamenei’s son, Hojjat ol Islam Mojtaba Khamenei, already has a strong network in Iran’s security apparatus. Recent changes in Mojtaba’s religious credentials and the appointment of Khamenei family loyalists to key positions signal an effort to protect Mojtaba’s position, at a minimum to safeguard him from regime infighting around Khamenei’s death and possibly to set conditions for Mojtaba to become Iran’s next supreme leader.

Mojtaba has a long-standing network of supporters in the regime’s security apparatus. Mojtaba fought in the Iran-Iraq war as a young man and formed lasting relationships with his fellow guardsmen in the Habib Ibn Mazahir Battalion under the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) 27th Mohammad Rasoul Ollah Division. Many members of the Habib Battalion hold influential positions, particularly in the powerful IRGC Intelligence Organization.

Mojtaba is bolstering his religious credentials to gain political legitimacy. Iran’s constitution requires the supreme leader to be a learned Islamic scholar. Ali Khamenei was promoted from the rank of hojjat ol Islam to ayatollah overnight when he was chosen to be the supreme leader in 1989. Followers of Mojtaba have begun inflating his religious credentials, calling him a grand ayatollah. Iranian media also began referring to him as *ayatollah instead of *hojjat ol Islam, indicating preparations for an ascendance like his father’s. Prominent clerics have publicly disputed both Mojtaba’s and his father’s religious credentials, indicating the credentials were assumed for political reasons.[1]

Khamenei family loyalists recently assumed key security positions, possibly as a contingency for a power struggle following Khamenei’s death. Allies of the Khamenei family have assumed leadership roles at the IRGC Sarallah Operational Headquarters since mid-2020. The Sarallah base is the operational headquarters responsible for commanding and overseeing all security forces around the capital region to protect the regime and confront domestic threats. The base is the command-and-control node for the capital’s IRGC, Basij, and Law Enforcement Forces. Hossein Nejat, a member of the Habib Battalion and close ally to Mojtaba, took over leadership of the Sarallah base over the summer.[2]

Khamenei also *appointed longtime supporter Hojjat ol Islam Ali Shirazi as his representative to the base in recent weeks. [3] The supreme leader representative position is designed to ensure an organization adheres ideologically to Khamenei’s vision.

Shirazi and Nejat’s appointments indicate the Sarallah base is newly important to the Khameneis. Nejat *previously commanded the Sarallah base from 1997–2000 when he was far less experienced. Shirazi has a higher public profile than do former Sarallah base supreme leader representatives. Shirazi’s appointment as the Sarallah base representative could be considered a demotion in other circumstances because it is a provincial, domestic operational base compared to his previous post as Khamenei’s representative to the expeditionary IRGC Quds Force. The Khamenei family’s attempts to position loyal officials to lead the Sarallah base indicates they may fear unrest as Ali Khamenei’s health declines.[4]

[1] Many grand ayatollahs defied Khamenei’s automatic promotion by sending him congratulatory telegrams referring to him as “hojjat ol Islam” shorty after Khamenei took the position in 1989. Iranian media and most Iranian officials immediately referred to him as ayatollah, however.

[2] Nejat commanded the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Vali Amr Unit, where he was *responsible for the Khameneis’ personal protection for nearly 10 years.

[3] Shirazi and his family have had a close relationship with Khamenei that predates the revolution. Khamenei gave a speech from the home of Shirazi’s eldest brother, Abbas Shirazi, in Kerman province and the brothers visited Khamenei when he was *subsequently exiled to Iranshahr. Ali Shirazi’s other brother, Mohammad Shirazi, also remains close to Khamenei as head of the Supreme Leader Military Office. 

[4] Rumors *suggest Ali Khamenei himself and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani orchestrated the poisoning of Ahmad Khomeini, son of Khomeini and top cleric, to eliminate a rival to Khamenei in 1995. Mojtaba possibly fears a similar fate if his bid for influence after his father’s death is unsuccessful.  

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