The Obama Administration may have found its breakthrough in dealing with Iran, but not through its diplomatic engagement. Rumors are spreading in and outside of Iran that Supreme Leader Khamenei, who at 70 years old has been known to be in poor health, is in a coma or dead. The regime denies this, but has failed to offer any proof that he is alive. Khamenei may ultimately prove to be alive, but it is clear something happened to him and his near-term fate is uncertain.
The rumors that Khamenei was in a coma began to quickly spread after prominent Iran expert, Michael Ledeen, wrote on his blog on October 13 that an “excellent” source “who is in a position to know such things” had informed him that Khamenei had fallen into a coma on October 13, his health was deteriorating, and could die. His report was picked up by prominent news outlets, even though Ledeen says that a left-wing Iranian website was the first to report on Khamenei’s condition.
Alan Peters of AntiMullah.com, who describes himself as having been “involved with intelligence and security matters in Iran with significant access at top levels during the rule of the Shah, until early 1979,” reported the following day that Khamenei had died, citing a source that he said was different from Ledeen’s. As evidence, he said that those appearing on the regime’s media outlets were wearing black and black drapes were seen on government buildings. However, a source inside Iran cautioned me this was more likely done to commemorate the death of the sixth Shiite Imam, Sadegh, which fell on October 14.
Rumors that Khamenei had died began spreading around Iran at this time, partially or wholly attributable to these reports. Pravda reported October 15 on the rumors, saying “For the time being, all that is known is that Khamenei lost consciousness on Monday afternoon and was hospitalized,” and that access to him was being limited to his son and personal doctor.
Al-Arabiya soon reported that the websites of Khamenei and the regime’s radio and T.V. had been shut down for non-technical reasons and that Ahmadinejad had held a meeting with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, to discuss the succession process. AntiMullah.com reported a similar meeting, describing it as taking place on the night of October 16 at Ahmadinejad’s palace, and being attended by seven members of the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the Supreme Leader, and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, but not mentioning the presence of Mojtaba. Everyone aside from the leaders left the building before the meeting commenced.
On October 18, Ledeen gave a timeline of Khamenei’s recent ills. He said that Khamenei cut his trip in Ramsar short on October 6 due to his health. It is possible at this juncture that Khamenei feared his life was ending, which would explain why he re-published
his will around this time. He fell into a coma on October 12 and foreign doctors, including two described as “orientals” arrived at his home in Tehran on October 14. The next day, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, visited Khamenei and was seen crying when he left the room. Ledeen notes that this part of his story is substantiated by the head of the Guardian Council who referred to a conversation he had with Nasrallah around this time. Ledeen also says that the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, former President Rafsanjani, tried to see Khamenei and was refused entry by Mojtab. This fits with _Pravda_’s story that only Mojtaba was allowed to see him and therefore acted as “gatekeeper.” Rafsanjani’s recent activity in opposition to the regime surely explains why he would be denied access but Nasrallah would be permitted.
The death of a tyrannical regime’s leader can be fatal to the government, and such reports can cause a lot of instability, especially for a government as unpopular as the one in Iran is. Such rumors need to be quelled as soon as possible, and that is why Khamenei’s failure to make a public appearance since they began gives them credence. In fact, the best the regime has done is to produce a photo of an alleged meeting between Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the President of Senegal. However, Khamenei was never slated to attend that meeting and his attendance without prior announcement would be very odd. There are also doubts about the photo’s authenticity, with Ledeen describing them as old and not of any recent reported meeting.
The fact that Khamenei didn’t immediately make a public statement regarding the October 18 suicide bombing by the Sunni Jundullah militant group that killed dozens of Revolutionary Guards officials, including the organization’s deputy-chief, is making the rumors spread even more. It is unthinkable that the leader of a country wouldn’t immediately react following a massive bombing in his country.
It wasn’t until the next day, October 19, that the Iranian state media quoted him as condemning the bombing and claiming that the West was involved. However, the reports covering the quote do not say that these comments were made by Khamenei on TV or some other form of public address. This leaves us with two possibilities: Khamenei is alive and issued the statement to the media, but isn’t in good enough condition for the regime to offer proof, or Khamenei is in a coma or is dead and the regime attributed the quote to him as part of an effort to quell the rumors and prevent further instability while they figure out how to handle the situation.
The status of Khamenei is ultimately unknown, but his inability to make a public appearance to rebut the rumors and address a major attack on his government strongly indicates that he is incapacitated, at the least. The regime’s use of old photos to try to prove he is alive only makes this scenario more likely. He may recover and show his face, but it is clear that the Iranian regime, Iranian people, and the West must be preparing for the day when Supreme Leader Khamenei dies and a succession struggle ensues.