Compared to the mullahs' life expectancy, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the "Supreme Guide" of the Islamic Republic of Iran, cannot be regarded as old. Aged only 67, he is still 11 years younger than his predecessor Khomeini at the time the mullahs seized power in 1979.
A study conducted by Fereshteh Rahmani shows that the average mullah lived 10 years longer than the average believer. So, why is Tehran full of rumors that Khamenei may not have many more months ahead of him?
According to President Ahmadinejad, the rumors were started by "a handful of bankrupt figures who wish to sell themselves to the foreigner."
Nevertheless, the fact is that Khamenei has missed quite a few official occasions. Two news agencies linked to the Khomeinist establishment have also reported him to be suffering from "a heavy cold" or "minor complications."
Speculation about Khamenei's health has been further intensified by public disputes about who or what might succeed him when and if he is no longer there. One idea, aired by a few ayatollahs in Qom, is to transform the duties of the "Supreme Guide" to a committee of five or nine mullahs chosen by the Assembly of Experts for a fixed period. The idea has been attacked by a number of mullahs, including Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a rising star of the radical faction, and Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, President Ahmadinejad's religious guide.
The conservative faction, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani is also opposed to collective leadership at the summit of the state. Rafsanjani's reason for opposing the formula, however, is not the same as those of Mesbah-Yazdi. The latter wants the role of he "Supreme Guide" reinterpreted to create a clear demarcation between the sacred and the temporal. That would mean abandoning Khomeinism and returning to classical Shiite doctrine according to which men cannot create perfect governments in the absence of the Hidden Imam. During the absence of the imam the best that believers can do is to tolerate the government in place while making sure it does not pollute the space reserved for faith.
Unlike Mesbah-Yazdi, Rafsanjani's approach to the problem is political, not theological. Rafsanjani has always believed that the position of the "Supreme Guide" was one tailor-made for Khomeini and that, after Khomeini's death, no one could claim it. While Mesbah-Yazdi wants a weak government but a strong clergy, Rafsanjani wants the opposite.
Rafsanjani believes that emerging countries like Iran need a system in which power is concentrated in the hands of those asked to "do things", that is to say the executive. This is why, in 1989, he persuaded Khomeini to abolish the post of the prime minister and transfer its powers to the president of the republic. Earlier he had managed to marginalize and then banish Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, the man expected to succeed Khomeini as "Supreme Guide."
Rafsanjani always wanted a weak "Supreme Guide" who would perform ceremonial functions, leaving the real business of government in the hands of the "strongman", that is to say Rafsanjani himself. It was based on that calculation that Rafsanjani staged what amounted to a coup in the immediate aftermath of Khomeini's death by claiming that the dying "Supreme Guide" had named Ali Khamenei as his successor.
Over the years, however, Khamenei proved that he was not the weak junior mullah that Rafsanjani had taken him to be. By the mid-1990s, Khamenei had established himself as the real power in the Islamic Republic, dashing Rafsanjani's hopes of reducing the "Supreme Guide" to the status of the queen of England.
Mesbah-Yazdi wants a "Supreme Guide" that has power without responsibility. Rafsanjani wants a "Supreme Guide" that has neither.
This is why Rafsanjani is openly promoting one of his protégés, the former President Muhammad Khatami, as the future "Supreme Guide" when, and if, a vacancy occurs.
A natural charmer, Khatami has always been loyal to Rafsanjani. He also has the advantage of not having a political base of his own. Khatami, who loves foreign travel and hobnobbing with the global glitterati, would be an ideal choice. As "Supreme Guide", he would tour the world, smile, talk of Rousseau and Hegel, and hoodwink the world into believing that the Islamic republic is as democratic as Switzerland.
And, then, Rafsanjani could organize his own return as a powerful president before age catches up with him. Rafsanjani, aged 73, hopes to make a comeback as early as 2008. A little noticed law recently passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly, the Khomeinist Parliament in Tehran, stipulates that presidential and parliamentary elections be held at the same time.
This could be interpreted to cut Ahmadinejad's presidential term from four years to three so that fresh elections for president can be held at the same time as a new Majlis is elected next year. Ahmadinejad and his radical allies, however, are unlikely to take all that with their arms folded. Having planned and plotted for years to seize power, they are unlikely to bow out without a fight. Many in Tehran believe that if the power struggle is fought to the full, Ahmadinejad's chances of victory are better than that of his rivals' including Rafsanjani.
If Khamenei leaves the stage for health reasons, or is taken away by the grim reaper, expect a spectacular three-cornered fight in Tehran involving the radicals led by Ahmadinejad, the wealthy mullahs led by Rafsanjani, and the traditional ayatollahs of Qom. It would be great fan to watch.