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Rumors Are Swirling That Iran’s Khamenei Is Near Death. Time To Pause Nuke Negotiations

Iran Missiles
Iranian ballistic missiles. Image: Creative Commons.

Rumors swirl that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is on his deathbed after a medical emergency forced his aircraft to divert to Semnan. Khamenei’s health has deteriorated for several years. He remains partially paralyzed due to a 1981 assassination attempt. In 2014, he survived prostate cancer surgery. The 82-year-old has appeared weak in increasingly sporadic public appearances.

Iran, like the Soviet Union, is opaque regarding the health of its senior officials. The Iranian government will choose silence over acknowledgment of poor health if the prognosis is uncertain. At present, its prognosis is deafening.

That said, the supreme leader is the undisputed power in Iran until now. European diplomats and the Biden administrated waited anxiously this month after sending a “final offer” for Khamenei’s approval. True to form, Khamenei refused, rightly guessing that European and American negotiators would not take no for an answer and sweeten the pot further.

It is time that Special Envoy Rob Malley and his European counterparts return home. With the supreme leader unwell and no clear successor, the last thing the White House should do is pursue any policy that pours tens of billions of dollars into an Iranian system whose leadership is uncertain.

There are many likely scenarios as to the immediate aftermath of Khamenei’s death.

  • Transition could be quick, slow or not at all. In theory, the Assembly of Experts chooses the next leader but they could take days, weeks, or months. Perhaps a singular candidate will consolidate control quickly, or perhaps those who suspect they cannot triumph will filibuster any choice.
  • President Ebrahim Raisi and/or Khamenei’s son Mojtaba could succeed to the leadership individually or together. Or, a compromise could emerge. After all, until just a few months before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 death, all bets were on Grand Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri whose candidature collapsed amongst clerical intrigue. Factional competition can manifest itself in violence not only on the Iranian street, but also as terrorism abroad as candidates compete to be the most hardline.
  • The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps might tire of operating behind the curtain and simply seize power for themselves. After all, they will be loath to sacrifice control over Iran’s nuclear program, most powerful military, and economy to any new leader. The question then becomes whether Iran would be a military dictatorship akin to Egypt or just a continuation of an ideological Islamic Republic absent a clerical figurehead.
  • In no scenario, however, is stability certain. When Khamenei dies, Tehran will be the prize. The Revolutionary Guards may lock down the capital, leaving a comparative vacuum along Iran’s periphery, a likelihood from which numerous ethnic groups and neighboring states might seek advantage. Welcome to civil war.
  • Of course, Iranians might surprise. They are immune to empty Islamist promises. Khomeini, after all, promised an Islamic democracy but delivered neither. Iranians understandably feel that the clerics burned them. History might also support a liberal solution. Between 1905 and 1911, Iran had its own indigenous experience with democracy, albeit under a monarchy. Iranians would not consider liberal democracy to be a foreign imposition. Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah, remains a tremendously popular figure, even if more as a unifier and senior statesman than as a potential monarch. Still, even if the majority of Iranians now look at his father’s reign as a golden era, they must still contend with a well-resourced Revolutionary Guard willing to impose through force what they have never achieved in hearts-and-minds.

Because of the stranglehold the Revolutionary Guards and senior clerics have over the economy, any sanctions relief or new investment now would disproportionately favor the consolidation of power by Iran’s most hardline elements.

Rather, as Iran enters a period of internal turmoil, the best strategy for the West would be to hold sanctions relief at bay, denying it to those at war with a liberal order and utilizing it as leverage to benefit those who seek to reintegrate Iran into the world as a normal nation-state. It would be immoral to pour billions of dollars into Iran when leadership is uncertain. To do so would only fuel civil war.

The White House and State Department need imagination. The Islamic Republic was never the natural pinnacle of Iranian political evolutionary; rather, it was an anomaly. The Middle East might be far different if the Islamic Republic did not exist. Imagine a region where the spirit of the Abraham Accords and mutual coexistence predominated and where the financial teats supporting Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraq’s most retrograde militias ran dry.

Biden may want to achieve a nuclear deal, but he and the broader bipartisan policy community should not confuse a temporary deal with the big picture: Khamenei’s death will be a watershed, for bad or for good. If the Biden administration hopes to preside over a new, peaceful order, then it is essential to take a pause on nuclear talks until a new post-Khamenei government forms.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Arash P

    September 11, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    More incoherent gibberish from professional Iranophob, Michael Rubin.

    That nobody, Reza son of deposed last shah is tremendously popular?!
    Have you ever been to Iran even for a day?
    Where do you get your information from? A bunch of exilees who will tell you whatever you want to hear?

    Also, this idea that Iran is dying to do business with the west. It will fall apart if it can’t sell oil to energy starved west, says how shallow your understanding of the world, in particular Iran is.

    1-Iran economy is not based on oil. Iran is not a petrol state like Saudi Arabia.

    2- Iran is selling enough oil as is. And there is long term agreement with China with guaranteed oil purchases included in it.

    3- A a core of motivated, well organized hardliner with broad societal support do not need a large stream of foreign cash to sustain their hold on power.
    There are plenty of examples of this. Most recent one being Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan despite having severe financial disadvantage.
    This idea that if you limit the flow of foreign cash into Iran, it somehow results in weakening of the hardliners’ hold on power, says how little you understand how the world actually works!

  2. xheavy

    September 11, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    Iran does not need any more hand holding for incessant demands on the precious deal. They burned it at the table along with the room’s chairs the other day demanding things they demanded from the beginning.

    So the big Poohbah Hat is dying. Fine. Whatever. Meh. There must be a thousand knives out tonight as they sort out who gets the big chair Klingon Style. The Gaurds Military will probably take power.

    When the sun comes up after this situation is over with the death and a new Military Power in Tehran, the western powers are about to learn the meaning of a Persian F-you for all the trouble they have been put through since the Shah was overthrown.

    Fortunately most of the Iranian Military top to bottom runs on old technology easily worked around with a few nights of hunting as we used to do back in the 80’s to keep them from overgrowing and killing the People.

    There will be no deal, will never be a deal and as long the idiot Iranian wants to be lured to the table to blissfully make demands no one can give them, we are happy to sit and endure the problem because that postpones the goal of Iran. The Islamic Nuclear Bomb.

    It cuts both ways. Iran needs time to build the damn thing. So once we agreed the talks is nothing but bullshittery and the death of a beard is immaterial and so on. Whats left? A Iran under Military Rule and going to war when the sun comes up the next day.

    Things tend to be made very simple in a state of war.

  3. GhostTomahawk

    September 11, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    What’s funny is American foreign policy failures with Iran and N Korea are almost identical.

    We beg them to do something, they stall and stall and we come back with more freebies. They do a deal and keep doing what they do.

    Am I the only one who noticed that yet?

    The west is led by Neville Chamberlain clones. Let Iran have nukes. Israel will handle that mess.

  4. Froike

    September 12, 2022 at 12:23 pm

    Hi Ghost….you nailed it. All the Bidet and Obamaites do is keep sending the Foatguckers cash to buy weapons for Terrorism and to develop their “Peaceful” Nuclear Program.
    Americans should realize, that we are considered Kefirs and hold the number One or Two position on Iran’s list of enemies. It’s a given, they want to remove Israel from the face of The Earth, but they feel that way about The Great Satan, USA. So yes, Israel will have to go it alone.

  5. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 12, 2022 at 1:18 pm

    History will ultimately show the folly of Obama stopping Israel from taking down Iran’s nuclear program when it was feasible.
    Iran’s Islam dictates that their savior Mahdi will not be ushered in until they destroy Israel. This is the difference between Iran and other Western enemies such as the DPRK and the PRC – they are motivated by something far bigger than ideology.

  6. Reza

    September 14, 2022 at 8:03 am

    It is true. He has prostate cancer.

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