The government is another matter. Many Iranians would celebrate its passing, and even its supporters have been watching for signs that the coronavirus will catalyze changes that should have come long ago, but that its authoritarian structure makes nearly impossible. The previous change of leadership came in 1989, as a result not of a modern political process but of biology: Ruhollah Khomeini, 86, died, and his deputy, Ali Khamenei, then 49, took over and has ruled ever since. He is now almost 81.
Given how many people are dying, it would be grotesque to think of COVID-19 as a lucky break for fans of regime change. But the news of ailing senior leaders keeps coming, and at some point the mullahs’ deep bench of gerontocrats will be depleted. Today, Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei-Golpaygani, a member of Khamenei’s Council of Experts, died of COVID-19 in Qom. Last week, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati announced that he had contracted the coronavirus. He is 74 years old, still cunning, and the chief adviser to Khamenei, to whom he speaks regularly and in person. If Velayati dies of the coronavirus, he will be the most important regime figure to die since Qassem Soleimani.
Of course, the center of all speculation is the supreme leader himself. Khamenei doesn’t appear in public often, even in the best of times, and you’d have to be fairly lucky to spot him—except on a few occasions where his appearance is so customary that an absence would make everyone, both allies and enemies, wonder if the coronavirus has felled him too.
As it happens, one such occasion is this week: Persian New Year, or Nowruz. This pre-Islamic holiday marks the vernal equinox, and this year it falls smack in the middle of coronavirus season. Last year, Khamenei stood at the largest Islamic pilgrimage site in Iran, the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, and delivered a long, almost Fidel Castro–like speechdetailing policies and plans. This year, the Islamic Republic canceled the speech 10 days in advance, “due to health recommendations to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.”
As a matter of public health, the decision to call off a huge public gathering is wise and sane. But rumors do not die so easily. Couldn’t Khamenei just give his speech from a studio? Is this not the ideal opportunity, the first day of spring, to discuss the process of renewal that Iran will have to undertake to recommit itself to the ideals of its revolution? For the past two weeks, speculation has been rampant. Surely, say the rumors, Khamenei has the virus—or if he doesn’t, it’s because he has entered Howard Hughes–like seclusion, behind a flaming moat of Purell. These rumors aside, the perception of distance has made Khamenei, already a distant figure without charisma or warmth, seem superannuated and out of touch. If he does not show up, looking healthy, for his camera appearance this year, many will assume that he is in a febrile delirium somewhere.