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The Other Iranian Ticking Time Bomb: The Life Expectancy of the Ayatollah

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Iran’s nuclear program isn’t the only thing ticking away that could change everything.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with high-ranking officials in Tehran August 31, 2011. (REUTERS/www.khamenei.ir/Handout)

Make no mistake: whatever it says, whatever fatwas it may have issued, Iran has been trying to get a nuclear weapon. It's been found with information on how to form uranium into an implosion-ready sphere, and we know it researched fitting nuclear warheads onto missiles.

Maybe the nuclear deal in the works (with the new deadline of June 30) will put a stop to all that, maybe not. But let's not overlook the other Iranian bomb in the works: Iran's Supreme Leader – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – is going to die.

Khamenei – in power for 25 years – is now 75, and recently had surgery on his prostate. Iran won't divulge too many details about his health, so we can't know for certain how long he might live.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with high-ranking officials in Tehran August 31, 2011. REUTERS/www.khamenei.ir/Handout Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with high-ranking officials in Tehran August 31, 2011. REUTERS/www.khamenei.ir/Handout 

But Khamenei's mortality has to shape everything we do with Iran, because little will change there politically so long as he stays in power. When Khamenei dies, there's a possibility for change, change that the U.S. can at least indirectly influence.

For instance, if Khamenei dies in the wake of stiffening economic sanctions – let alone an attempt by Israel or the U.S. to bomb Iran's nuclear program into oblivion – then Khamenei will likely be replaced by someone just as bad or even worse. Someone who can get away with still more abuses against the Iranian people in the name of solidarity against the "Great Satan." Iran will be even more determined to get a nuclear weapon.

And that will prompt Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt to think about developing their own nukes, leading to more worry about nukes being used or falling into the wrong hands.

On the other hand, if Khamenei dies as Iran is being woven into a network of trade that holds out the prospect for the Iranian people – or at least, the ruling elite – to make money, then there's a better chance that Khamenei will be replaced by someone who behaves differently. Someone who will realize that Iran's belligerent behavior does more to tear down its future than to build it up.

President Barack Obama's negotiations on Iran's nuclear program leave a lot to be desired. But notice that he's doing basically the same thing as previous presidents: impose sanctions, offer to lift them in exchange for concessions, and engage in sabotage wherever possible (e.g., the Stuxnet virus). There just aren't a lot of great options. If the Obama administration is flailing, that's due at least as much to the complexity of the situation as their own incompetence.

There is a monumental political struggle going on in Iran, a struggle that will play out again in February 2016, when elections are held for the clerical body that selects Iran's Supreme Leader. While some of Iran's leadership is dangerously fanatical, some of it is far more pragmatically self-interested; bombing Iran might seriously undermine their nuclear program, or it might only delay it a year or two; the people of Iran chafe under the theocratic-military dictatorship that mismanages both their economy and their international reputation, but they will rally behind those leaders if they feel backed into a corner.

All of this could tip one way or the other when Khamenei – who turns 76 this July – dies.

Whatever you think of the nuclear deal that's being proposed, think about whether and how it makes the most of the political change coming to Iran. Because that change may be coming sooner than we think.

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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