Iranian leaders ‘distress’ over protests, experts say

Iran's clerical leaders are keen to crush mass anti-governmental protests, but maneuver over the eventual succession to the supreme leader and divisions on security tactics have complicated efforts to curb the unrest, three analysts and one official said.

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The increasingly daring demonstrations, triggered by the death of a woman detained by the police, have put the Iranian leadership on the defensive with officials seemingly unable to pull together behind an agreed response to the turmoil, analysts and the official said.

Protesting the legitimacy of the highest Iranian authority, the demonstrators burned photos of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this month called for the fall of the Islamic Republic and sang “Death to the Dictator”, undisturbed by security forces using tear gas, truncheons, and, in some cases, live ammunition.

The unrest is a serious threat to the priority that has defined Khamenei’s reign — the survival of the four-decade-old Islamic Republic and its religious establishment, at any cost.

But the fact that the disorders coincided with rumors about his bad health —he’s 83 years old—has only made matters worse, as the factional-dominated elite is preoccupied with his eventual succession, analysts and officials said.

Although theoretically, a body of 86 members known as the Assembly of Experts will select the next leader, high-level negotiations and influence maneuvers have already begun, making it difficult for the institution to unite around a range of security tactics.

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This race has created a mess for the leadership. Worsening the fracture is the last thing we need when the country is in crisis,” one intransigent official said.

“The biggest problem today is the survival of the Islamic Republic.”

Khamenei himself was silent about the protests, which quickly turned into a revolt against what the protesters said was the rising authoritarianism of the top clerics.

The two most common names in the succession speculation are President Ebrahim Raisi and Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba, said Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

“None of them have popular support, but what holds the Islamic Republic to power is not popular support, but repression. Both men are deeply experienced in suppression,” he said.

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