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September 21, 2022 11:05 am

Iran’s Supreme Leader Near Death? What the Media Obituaries Must Remember

avatar by Rachel O'Donoghue


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting via video conference with people from East Azarbaijan in Tehran, Iran, February 17, 2022. Photo: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS

Shortly after The New York Times published a story on Friday alleging that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was “gravely ill” and being monitored by a team of doctors, Iran’s propaganda machine went into overdrive.

Responding to the NYT’s claim that Khamenei’s ailing health forced him to cancel all public appearances, The Tehran Times posted a piece headlined, ‘”Why did NYT lie about Leader’s health?,” in which the newspaper concluded that “New York Times reporters are being fed fake news by the Israeli sources.”

Meanwhile, the state-run Fars News Agency claimed any reports that Khamenei is sick are “false,” and pointed out that a public appearance by the cleric subsequent to the NYT’s piece proved that the stories were inaccurate.

It is true that Khamenei’s attendance at a religious ceremony in Tehran on Saturday does appear to put to bed rumors that he is at death’s door.

Dressed in black robes, holding prayer beads, and with a blue coronavirus mask partially covering his beard, Khamenei appeared determined to disprove the Times’ reportage as he waved to the crowd and listened intently to the service delivered by an Imam.

However, the Times may not be that far off the mark, given that rumors of the ayatollah’s declining health have repeatedly surfaced in recent years. Indeed, just two years ago it was believed his health had deteriorated to such an extent that he made the extraordinary decision to transfer powers to his 51-year-old son, Sayyid Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei.

And when the octogenarian dictator does die, we must hope that the Western press avoids its habit of glorifying Khamenei and his despotic rule.

Instead, here is a brief reminder of what should be included in the obituaries.

The 1988 Massacre

When Ali Khamenei was president of Iran, he oversaw the execution of thousands of political prisoners under a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Recognizing the massacre as a crime against humanity, Swedish prosecutors in 2021 tried a former Iranian official for war crimes and murder, due to his role in the mass tortures and killings of civilians.

Khamenei claimed the victims of the massacre “deserve to be executed.”

Enforced Disappearances

Thousands of activists were forcibly disappeared and extra-judicially executed during and after the 1988 massacre. For three decades, Iran has refused to acknowledge the existence of mass graves or reveal the fates of the victims.

In his report to the UN General Assembly detailing the horrors, Professor Javaid Rehman said: “Impunity and attempts to destroy evidence of past violations continued during the reporting period, including in relation to the summary executions and enforced disappearances of political dissidents in 1988.”

Crackdown on Dissidents

Khamenei presides over a regime that brutally suppresses any political opposition. In 1980, Khamenei announced he would target university students who opposed the 1979 cultural revolution.

“These groups that have nested in the universities and have attacked the Islamic Republic must be expelled. If these centers of corruption are not returned to their original owner, the state, then the original owner will come and guard them,” Khamenei said during a speech.

Election Protests

As widespread demonstrations erupted in Iran over claims of vote-rigging during the 2009 election, the regime orchestrated the mass detention of protestors and activists. Human rights charities say some detainees were subjected to torture so brutal that it resulted in their deaths.

Ali Khamenei issued numerous threats to demonstrators in a bid to quell the unrest, including warning street demonstrators they would be held “accountable.” He also blamed the “treacherous” UK for whipping up disorder and pounded on the “Zionist” media for fomenting disorder.

Authoritarian Control

Positioned at the top of Iran’s political structure, Supreme Leader Khamenei is also the commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces, and controls the security services. He appoints the head of the judiciary, half of the members of the influential Guardian Council, the leaders of Friday’s prayers, and the heads of the state-run television and radio networks.

Israel Threats and Antisemitism

Khamenei has repeatedly threatened Israel with destruction, and frequently describes the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor.”

In 2020, he shared a poster that called for a “final solution” for Israel, in what was clearly intended to evoke the Nazi term for the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust.

Twitter has repeatedly resisted calls for Khamenei’s Twitter account to be deactivated, despite the despot using the platform to call for Israel to be “eliminated,” and to spread conspiracies that a “Zionist network” controls the United States.

Mass protests broke out once again in Iran this week following the funeral of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was allegedly beaten to death by officers of the country’s morality police after she was arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly.

Demonstrators on the streets were caught on camera chanting “death to the dictator” in reference to Khamenei, which if the rumors are to be believed, will happen sooner rather than later.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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