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Tehran (AFP) - Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei successfully underwent prostate surgery, official media announced Monday in an unprecedented public statement on his health, which has long been subject to speculation.
The 75-year-old cleric, who has ruled since the death in 1989 of the Islamic republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had a routine operation, according to IRNA, Iran's official news agency.
"There is nothing to worry about," the supreme leader said in a brief interview recorded before he entered hospital and aired on state television after his treatment was made known.
"This does not mean that prayers are not welcome... but it is a normal operation," he added.
As Iran's supreme guide, Khamenei has the final word on all matters of state and his authority far exceeds that of the country's elected politicians, including President Hassan Rouhani.
Khamenei's powers include direct control of the regime's media apparatus -- through state television and radio -- and thus he would have personally taken the decision to publicise his surgery.
As an example of his overriding influence, Khamenei made a speech on July 7 listing Iran's demands under any nuclear deal with the West, while confidential negotiations were ongoing.
Just two weeks later a deadline for an agreement between Iran and six world powers was ultimately missed, requiring talks between the two sides to be extended for four months.
Monday's announcement was the first time that official information has been given on Khamenei's health. In recent years, there have been widely circulated rumours that he had prostate cancer.
Khamenei's website quoted Dr Alireza Marandi, head of the leader's medical team, as saying: “This successful operation was performed during half an hour & not under general but local anaesthesia."
Patients undergoing such a procedure tend to stay in hospital for between three and five days afterwards, he told state television.
"This is true for him," said Marandi, a former health minister. "His health is totally good," though the effects of surgery will affect the leader's work rate for several weeks, he added.
- President at bedside -
Rouhani, who was in the northeastern city of Mashhad on Sunday, was due to fly on to Kazakhstan but instead returned to Tehran to be at the hospital, a political aide said.
Official pictures showed the pair at the leader's bedside, with Rouhani solemnly kissing Khamenei's forehead as he lay in bed wearing a blue gown with his eyes closed but still wearing his spectacles.
Speculation about the leader's health has previously circled during periods of public silence from him but in recent weeks he has made numerous speeches and public appearances.
He was particularly vocal this summer in condemning Israel's military action in Gaza, which he described as genocide.
Khamenei has also regularly lambasted the United States with whom Iran's relations have long been close to zero but which were hoped to improve following Rouhani's election last summer.
Before being appointed as head of state 25 years ago, Khamenei served as president for almost eight years during the Iran-Iraq war.
In 1981, he survived an assassination attempt which left his right arm paralysed.
Khamenei's powers in military matters are particularly important, as he can pronounce peace or declare war by mobilising the armed forces of which he is effectively commander-in-chief.
Iran's Assembly of Experts, comprised of 86 religious figures elected by the people, is responsible for appointing the supreme leader and monitoring his actions.
The head of state is granted an indefinite term but the assembly has the power to dismiss him.
The group met in Tehran last week but its president, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Khani, an 83-year-old cleric, was absent due to his ill-health. He is in a coma and has been hospitalised since June 4 after suffering a stroke.