11/04/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Where Is the Ayatollah?

When a leader like Iran's Grand Ayatollah Khamenei does not appear in public for three weeks, and when the Iranian press reports that he collapsed in a meeting and was taken to a hospital, the intelligence community starts making all kinds of assumptions and conjectures.

It had been three weeks since The Supreme Leader of Iran was seen in public before Sunday. It is assumed that he is recovering from some health issue. We, in the West, do not know what might have caused the Grand Ayatollah to collapse.

Khamenei has been in power since 1989. He is only 74, but if he can no longer serve there is no doubt that there will be serious upheaval in Iran.

The man most likely to succeed Khamenei is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who served as the fourth president of Iran, from 1989 to 1997. Rafsanjani is believed to be a reformer and as such, he could really create change. He is extremely well qualified to be the Supreme Leader, even more qualified than Khamenei in terms of his level of learning and academic standing.

Actually, it was Rafsanjani who set the stage and ushered Khamenei into position after the death of the founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. It was the worst kept secret in Iran. Rafsanjani and Khamenei were friends and colleagues going back two decades before the revolution. The friendship never suffered over the fact that they have starkly contrasting visions of the way Islam should play out in the Islamic Republic.

Rafsanjani served as president of Iran for two terms while Khamenei held the position of Supreme Leader. The original concept that Rafsanjani had for the position is very different from the position that Khamenei subsequently created for himself. Rafsanjani saw the seat of power in the presidency and hoped that Khamenei would become more of a figure head, like Queen Elizabeth. But Khamenei saw his position as divinely derived and given to him from the Hidden Imam. He was to be the exclusive leader in Iran and saw the people as his subjects more than as citizens.

While not a liberal democrat, Rafsanjani does believe that Iran should function with certain republican principles. He believes that the country should be an Islamic republic. He also believes that there should be institutions with accountability to engage in foreign agreements. And he believes in a capitalist economy.

After the reports of Syria gassing its own citizens Rafsanjani made the following statement: "A government that uses chemical bombs against it people, will face hard consequences, just like Saddam, who earned eternal shame in the bombing of Halabja and suffered such a horrible fate."

Despite the political power he wielded as president, Rafsanjani no longer has political strength.
When he announced that he was running for president in the 2013 election, a position he was elected to twice already, he was disqualified for two reasons. He was over the maximum age and he had supported protestors on the street during the Green Revolution. Khamenei, who had the authority to overrule the committee, did not.

Friendship aside, the Grand Ayatollah did not want Rafsanjani in such a powerful position again. That is why Khamenei originally backed Ahmadinejad for president in 2005. Ahmadinejad was not a cleric and so he could not challenge Khamenei theologically. And Ahmadinejad, unlike Rafsanjani, was not a protégé of the founder of the revolution Khomeini. In a fascinating move, Khomeini's daughter sent a letter to the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and then even published it in May 2013 asking the Supreme Leader to overrule the committee and let Rafsanjani run.

Rouhani, the current president of Iran, is a protégé of Rafsanjani. Student and teacher share many similar tactics and ideas, but Rouhani knows he must work closely with Khamenei.

Why has the Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei not been seen in public of late, I am not about to speculate. But I am certainly curious. In all likelihood this Ayatollah is not going anyplace, anytime soon. But eventually, the end of the rule of the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei will come and when it does, it will be very interesting to see how things shake and rattle and are then resolved in Iran.