Talk of Supreme Leader's imminent demise likely to be somewhat exaggerated.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
A document released by WikiLeaks suggesting that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has advanced leukemia is being discussed as heatedly inside Iran as in the international media. But it is likely to be just another in a long line of suspect accounts of his imminent death.
The leaked document purports to be a United States diplomatic cable dating from August 2009, quoting a businessman who frequently travels to Tehran as saying a contact close to former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had told him that Khamenei, 71, was suffering from terminal leukemia and might die within the next few months.
Assuming the Wikileaks document is genuine, it is nevertheless only a report of remarks made by an anonymous foreign businessman who is in turn recounting what he heard from some other source. So in terms of credible information, it is lacking in every way.
Even so, the apparent revelation has had all the more impact in Iran because rumours were already swirling about the state of Khamenei's health.
The talk centred on Khamenei's trip to see top Shia clergy in Qom in October, his first official visit to Iran's main religious centre in a decade.
A headline Vatan Emrouz, a hardliner newspaper closely aligned with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, likened the reception of Khamenei to Qadir Khom, a key event in Shia history. A year before his death, the Prophet Mohammad was ailing and had returned from pilgrimage when he stopped at a place called Khom. The Shia history of what followed is that the Prophet anointed his cousin Ali as his successor, and all assembled pledged allegiance to him. Sunnis, who trace their spiritual lineage to Abu Bakr instead of Ali, disagree, so the event marks the beginning of a rift that eventually produced two separate branches of Islam.
Meir Javedanfar an analyst on Middle Eastern affairs, writing on the Diplomat website, argued that Khamenei used the visit to set the stage for his son Mojtaba to succeed him as Supreme Leader. Second, he said, "it's hard not to speculate over whether Khamenei is trying to convey a message about the condition of his own health, too."
However, this reading may be ignoring the obvious. It is more than possible that Vatan Emrouz ran its headline simply with the intention of scotching rumours that Khamenei's popularity and legitimacy were waning, by showing that the people of Qom had rallied to pledge allegiance to him.
This is not the first time rumours have surfaced that Khamenei is unwell. In fact, Iranians have been discussing the possibility he might have some form of cancer for the last 15 years.
The story has popped up from time to time in the international media, too. In October 2009, the Iranian leftist émigré website Pyknet, based in Germany, reported that the Supreme Leader had collapsed and been taken to hospital.
Michael Ledeen, a former consultant to the United States National Security Council, picked the story up, adding that Khamenei was in a coma.
In a posting on the pajamasMEDIA website, Ledeen said his information came from an "excellent" source "who is in a position to know such things".
In January 2007, Ledeen reported that Khamenei was dead. The Supreme Leader had failed to appear at the important Eid ul-Adha. Exceptionally, the Iranian government went out of its way to deny the report, saying Khamenei merely had a bad cold. The Supreme Leader duly reappeared some time later.
In the course of the last ten years, I have spoken frequently to confidential sources close to Khamenei's household, who have consistently denied that he has a major illness. Just two weeks before the Wikileaks document came out, a source close to the Rafsanjani family told me that the Supreme Leader had no serious ailment.
Iran is of course a much more closed state than the United States, where the press published the health records of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 election campaign.
The last Shah of Iran concealed the fact he had cancer for years, to the extent that neither his wife nor the CIA were aware of it for some considerable time.
Similarly, there is little publicly accessible evidence about the Supreme Leader's state of health.
The Supreme Leader is undoubtedly in good hands, as Iran has plenty of highly skilled doctors. One of the very few medical advisors whose names are known, Dr Iraj Fazel, saved Khamenei's life after a 1980 assassination attempt, but President Ahmadinejad sacked him as head of the Academy of Medical Sciences last year after he condemned the post-election crackdown and called for the release of detainees. Dr Fazel remains head of the national Surgical Society but his position as doctor to the Supreme Leader remains unknown.
Another personal doctor, Dr Hadi Manafi, a surgeon and former health minister, visited Khamenei on a daily basis until 1995.
In June, the Kayhan Daily, seen as close to the Supreme Leader, carried remarks made by a long-time bodyguard of Khamenei, who indicated that he underwent surgery at the Shahid Rajayi Cardiological Hospital in the early Nineties. Other than that, the only other information we can glean comes from a letter written to Khamenei from former United Nations health consultant Dr Payam Fazel indicates that his father, and Iraj Fazel's nephew, Dr Houshang Fazel is dentist to the Supreme Leader, who uses dentures.
The statistics are on Khamenei's side, given that many of Iran's ayatollahs live well into their eighties and nineties. Last year, the authorities began celebrating his birthday for the first time, distributing sweets throughout the city and in government offices.
Ali Reza Eshraghi is the editor of the Iran Programme at IWPR.
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