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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
When a dictator or a monarch dies it can produce a political crisis in that country. Right now, U.S. intelligence analysts are following the medical condition of three ailing foreign leaders in particular. In each case, the United States has a stake in the outcome, as NPR's Tom Gjelten explains.
TOM GJELTEN: First, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, founded by Ibn Saud. At his death in 1953, he had 35 sons and the crown has been passed down among them. Each new king named his successor, a crown prince, who then took the thrown when the time came. But there's a problem, now, in Saudi Arabia. It's not that the current king, Abdullah, is 85 years old, it's that the man due to succeed him, Crown Prince Sultan, is himself 84 and he is said to be terminally ill, perhaps with pancreatic cancer.
Kamran Bokhari is the director of Middle East Analysis for Stratfor, an intelligence research firm.
Mr. KAMRAN BOKHARI (Director, Middle East Analysis, Stratfor): We do know, for a fact, that the Crown Prince Sultan is ill and his chances of recovering are very, very slim.
GJELTEN: This is an unprecedented situation, says Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. No crown prince in Saudi Arabia has ever died before ascending to the throne.
Mr. SIMON HENDERSON (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): If the designated successor dies before the king, it throws up in the air the whole notion of who the next king is going to be.
GJELTEN: In a break with Saudi tradition, King Abdullah in 2006 said the designation of the next crown prince should be done by a so-called allegiance council made up of members of the royal family.
Mr. HENDERSON: We could see tensions within the royal family, and we could also see some power maneuvering. One prince has control of the military. Another prince is the interior minister and has considerable paramilitary force under his command. Will it come to a confrontation? I don't know, but it possibly could.
GJELTEN: Another complicating factor, the senior princes - brothers or half-brothers - are all in their 70s or 80s, meaning Saudi Arabia could face a series of succession crises in the coming years. This, in a country that's the number one oil exporter and the leader of the Muslim world, it's fair to say U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring the Saudi leadership situation very closely.
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GJELTEN: Next, there's North Korea. Tens of thousands of people regularly fill Kim Il-Sung square in the capital Pyongyang, as they did one day last month. They snapped the flags in the air and cheered their leader.
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GJELTEN: Kim Il-sung was the founder of North Korea. His son, Kim Jong-Il, is the current leader. The banners surrounding the plaza say long live the great leader Kim Jong-Il. But how long will Kim live? He's only in his early 60s, but U.S. officials say he had a debilitating stroke this summer.
Paul Stares, of the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of a new report, Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea. He researched the life expectancy of people who've had strokes. Twenty-five percent die within one year.
Mr. PAUL STARES (Council on Foreign Relations): What complicates it somewhat is Kim Jong-Il is believed to be a diabetic and the life expectancy, according to a large study done recently, goes down by about 15 percent. So they're, you know, they're not terrible odds, but not great odds either.
GJELTEN: Again there's a succession issue here. Kim Jong-Il was groomed by his father over a period of 20 years to follow in his footsteps, but the son has no designated successor and there's no institution in North Korea that could play an obvious role in choosing his replacement. A senior U.S. official who tracks intelligence on North Korea says it appeared no one there was making decisions during the roughly two months Kim was incapacitated last year. And Paul Stares says the country is now facing a range of problems, including severe food shortages.
Mr. STARES: We're not predicting that there's going to be a collapse tomorrow. We're just saying that this is something that has to be considered as among the range of possibilities.
GJELTEN: And this in a country with nuclear weapons. Finally, there's Fidel Castro's Cuba. A man who has outlasted ten U.S. presidents turned over most of his power, a year ago, to his brother Raul. As the case of the North Korea also shows, even communist countries can practice hereditary succession. Fidel disappeared from public view in 2006, after undergoing serious intestinal surgery. Last month, his friend and protege, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, made it official: Fidel is not coming back.
Mr. HUGO CHAVEZ (President of Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)
GJELTEN: That Fidel, Chavez said, who used to walk up and down streets at dawn like a warrior, embracing his people, he will not return.
Days later, Fidel himself, writing in a newspaper column, referred to the gravity of his health situation and said he'd probably not make it to the end of President Barack Obama's first term in office. Under brother Raul, there's been no evident unrest or big outflow of refugees as some people predicted, but Marifeli Perez-Stable, a Cuba analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, says it may be too soon to conclude what will happen when Fidel finally departs the scene.
Ms. MARIFELI PEREZ-STABLE (Cuba Analyst, Inter-American Dialogue): Even if people haven't seen him in person for two and a half years, his death is a big thing in Cuba, especially if people's breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are not taken care of. I mean this is a big question, how long will the Cuban people put up with a government that is incompetent to improve their standards of living?
GJELTEN: Once more, there are succession issues here. Over the past two and a half years, Raul Castro has been able to consolidate his authority, but there might be new challenges once Fidel is truly out of the picture. And how will the country choose its next leader after Raul, who himself is 77? As with the Saudi oil dynasty and the Kim family in North Korea, these are unanswered questions. And political instability in a close U.S. neighbor or in our top oil supplier, or in a nuclear armed adversary, is enough of a concern that intelligence analysts will be paying close attention to the leaders of these three critical countries.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.