Secretive son of Iran’s supreme leader wields power after President’s death

Mojtaba Khamenei in Tehran in 2019.
Mojtaba Khamenei in Tehran in 2019.

Summary

As the death of President Ebrahim Raisi brings forward urgent questions surrounding the leadership of Iran, Mojtaba Khamenei, son of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is poised to play a central role.

As the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi brings forward urgent questions surrounding the country’s leadership, Mojtaba Khamenei, the powerful and secretive son of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is poised to play a central role.

To most Iranians, the son is an enigma. He holds no public position, rarely appears in public and doesn’t give speeches. With decades long ties to key figures in Iran’s intelligence and security establishment, the younger Khamenei has grown powerful in the shadows, particularly under Raisi, who was seen as a pliant president without a personal power base.

Raisi was seen as being groomed to potentially succeed the supreme leader, who at the age of 85 has had health problems. As president he served as a vessel for more powerful individuals and networks to wield influence from behind the scenes.

Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday has stirred speculation about who is likely to succeed Khamenei, and whether the next president will be as pliable for the country’s power brokers, including those surrounding Khamenei’s son and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In recent years, many have speculated that Mojtaba Khamenei could be a front-runner to succeed his father, but Iran watchers and political analysts say that is unlikely. Instead, they say, he would be more powerful out of the spotlight.

“Mojtaba and the network around him have been running the show over the past two decades," said Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow and Iran expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Now, certainly for Khamenei himself, the main challenge is to find someone with the exact characteristics that Raisi had."

Doing that, Azizi said, “would set the scene where Mojtaba could preserve and even expand his power while keeping his shadow role, out of public scrutiny."

Either way, Mojtaba Khamenei, 54 years old, will play a central role as Iran reconfigures its political landscape ahead of presidential elections scheduled for late June and his father’s looming succession.

The political maneuvering will help determine the future of Iran as it deepens its engagement in regional conflicts and faces growing dissent at home.

The death of Raisi has, at least in the short term, placed a firm loyalist to Mojtaba Khamenei in the presidency. Mohammad Mokhber, who will be acting president until the elections and may run for the office, was brought by Khamenei to run the billion-dollar Setad fund, which controls holdings in real estate, industry, finance and more and is controlled by the supreme leader.

The son also holds sway in the supreme leader’s office and the business empire it controls.

Khamenei was born in 1969 in the religious city of Mashhad, when his father was becoming a leading figure in the revolutionary movement against the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Ali Khamenei was arrested repeatedly by the Shah’s secret police, and during one raid, Mojtaba watched him being beaten, according to the supreme leader’s website.

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Khamenei family moved to Tehran, where Mojtaba attended a high school for children of the revolutionary vanguards, while his father quickly rose in the ranks of the government to become president in 1981.

Mojtaba Khamenei spent his formative years like many young Iranian men, fighting in the 1980-1988 war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In his battalion, he formed relationships with men who later became senior figures in Iran’s security apparatus, including Hossein Taeb, a future intelligence chief in the Revolutionary Guard, and Hossein Nejat, who would become head of the Revolutionary Guard’s unit tasked with crushing protests in Tehran.

Khamenei’s profile rose in the 1990s and particularly in the mid-2000s when reformists accused him of engineering the 2005 and 2009 presidential election victories for hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In 2009, he was influential, through his backing of Taeb, then commander of the paramilitary Basij militia, in the violent crackdown on Green Movement protesters who were claiming the election had been stolen, according to an adviser to the Revolutionary Guard.

Khamenei’s activities attracted attention abroad. The U.S. imposed sanctions on him in 2019, accusing him of working closely, on behalf of his father, with the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij “to advance his father’s destabilizing regional ambitions and oppressive domestic objectives."

In 2022, nationwide protests again swept Iran following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman accused of violating the country’s Islamic dress code. The son of the supreme leader quickly became the target of protesters’ anger. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former presidential candidate who is under house arrest, called on Khamenei to dispel the rumors about his son succeeding him. The ayatollah didn’t respond.

The son’s rise has fed speculation that he is being positioned to succeed his father. That is an unlikely scenario, said Mehdi Khalaji, a theologian trained in the holy Iranian city of Qom and author of a 2023 book on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“The idea that Mojtaba’s ambition is to be the next supreme leader is a total myth," Khalaji said. “Based on historical experience, I don’t think Khamenei would indicate anyone, even his son, as successor."

The younger Khamenei lacks several qualities formally required of a supreme leader, including the needed religious credentials or executive experience. Ali Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, dismissed the idea of passing on power to one’s child as un-Islamic and monarchic.

“With decades of experience in the corridors of power, [Mojtaba Khamenei’s] network in the regime is unparalleled," said Saeid Golkar, an expert on Iran’s security services who teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “But his appointment could jeopardize Khamenei’s legacy by bringing back the monarchy."

Experts say that Mojtaba Khamenei’s power may be threatened once his father passes away, and that he may fare better if he remains in the shadows. Before Khomeini’s death in 1989, his son Ahmad, who was his chief of staff and more powerful than Mojtaba Khamenei is today, ran the country’s affairs alongside Ali Khamenei and then-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but fell out with them after his father’s passing. Ahmad Khomeini died in 1995, at 49, of reported cardiac arrest.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com and Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

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