Iran Denies Reports About Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Ill Health

Over the weekend unconfirmed reports emerged from inside of Iran concerning the health of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Saturday, London-based journalist Momahad Ahwaze tweeted that Khamenei’s health was rapidly deteriorating and there was growing concern about it in government circles. Ahwaze also reported that sources inside of Tehran had confirmed to him that Khamenei’s duties and powers had been transferred to his son Mojtaba Khamenei, who is in charge of Iran’s security and intelligence services. Separate reports were also published claiming a meeting of the Assembly of Experts on Leadership, an 88-strong body of elected clerics responsible for appointing and monitoring the supreme leader, had taken place. Some unconfirmed reports even surfaced claiming Khamenei had died.

Today, the Iranian government responded. Government spokesmen, and state-run media denied reports of the meeting, and claim Khamenei is alive and healthy.  “By the grace of God and with the good prayers of devotees, the gentleman (Ayatollah Khamenei) is in good health and is busy vigorously carrying out his plans according to his routine,” Iranian government official Mehdi Fazaeli, said on Twitter. The Assembly of Experts even released a statement denying an emergency meeting had taken place.

Against the press releases and statements of the Iranian government is the fact Khamenei’s last public appearance was on 24 November. It is also well known that the Supreme Leader underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 2014 and is now 81 years old. It’s quite possible he is in ill health at the moment and the government is attempting to keep the news from becoming know.

Given what all has been happening lately with regards to Iran, and its nuclear program, the reports about Khamenei’s health add a wildcard to the situation. If it turns out his health is failing, Tehran might find itself facing a leadership crisis at the worst possible moment.

The Trump Pause

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The United States was primed and ready to begin attacks against the Iranian SAM (Surface to Air Missile) and radar sites responsible for shooting down an unarmed US Navy MQ-4 drone over the Strait of Hormuz. At the last moment, President Trump cancelled the strikes, citing the unacceptably high risk of Iranian casualties. In Trump’s view the Iranians had shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle. Responding with air and cruise missile strikes that could kill up to 150 Iranians was not a proportionate reply. It remains unknown whether the strike plans have been permanently cancelled, or placed on a temporary hold for the moment.

President Trump’s pause presents an opportunity for Iranian government to dial back its belligerent actions and turn off the crisis without losing face. Trump has demonstrated that the US is prepared to response militarily if a single US life is lost as a result of Iranian military action. By not retaliating due to concerns about casualties, Trump has seized the moral high ground and shown the world that the United States is not actively seeking a conflict with Iran. The ball is now in Teheran’s court. If Iran chooses to remain on the path it is currently on, it will inevitably lead to US military action, and even more economic sanctions.

The root cause of this crisis is the current state of Iran’s economy. US sanctions have placed a tremendous burden on the government, which now seems to be irreversibly tethered to the belief Washington will ease the sanctions as a result of the pressure Iran, and its proxies are applying in the region.

The next forty-eight hours could reveal much about Iran’s future intentions, and the direction this crisis will take.