By Meir Javedanfar
“Ensuring that Ahmadinejad continues as president and that a coalition of powerful figures and reformers does not gain power is an overwhelming concern for the Supreme Leader, which may explain his actions surrounding Iran’s most controversial elections to date.”
The recent presidential elections in Iran have proven to be the most controversial since the start of the revolution. With demonstrators taking to the streets of Tehran, many are seeking to understand the cause of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial victory. To find the answer, we must look at the short- and long-term aspirations of Iran’s most powerful man, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.
Since becoming Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989, Khamenei has maintained cohesion amongst different political factions through a system of checks and balances. Almost like a trapeze artist, he has survived domestic challenges and threats of foreign-backed regime change by giving each major political faction a say in a different part of the system. For example, as means of keeping the conservatives happy when the reformists won the elections in 1997 and 2001, he allowed the conservatives to run the judiciary and the media. To maintain cohesiveness when the conservatives retook power through Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, he allowed the president’s chief opponent, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to run the Assembly of Experts as well the Expediency Council.
When Khamenei wanted to divest power from a group in the past, he did it in a very gradual manner. A chief example is his goal to wrestle political and economic power away from the clergy and hand it to non-religious conservatives, whom he views as being more loyal and capable of running the country. Since 2001, he has been carrying out this process, slowly and meticulously.
However, his support for Ahmadinejad before and after the elections, together with what many believe to be overwhelming election fraud that he has sanctioned, is almost out of character for Khamenei. Such moves are very sudden and extreme, unlike the punctilious way in which he has maneuvered around important issues and decisions in the past. They are also very provocative, not just for supporters of reformists, but because they are clearly efforts to isolate other powerful figures. These leaders include Rafsanjani and Karroubi, both of whom have vast business connections and are politically well-connected.
One possible reason for Khamenei’s recent decision is that he realized that unless he intervened, the reformists would win the elections. What concerned the Supreme Leader even more is the fact that the clergy, both right and left, were turning against the president, and ultimately, against him. Recently, for instance, the Society For Combatant Clergies, a powerful conservative group belonging to the clergy in Qom, decided “not to support any candidate in the presidential elections.” This was a politically correct way of saying that they would not support Ahmadinejad. As someone who has supported Ahmadinejad throughout his career, Khamenei took their decision as a rebuff against his own political ambitions.
A victory by the reformists, in cooperation with the clergy and Rafsanjani, would have created a powerful front against Khamenei. Instead of being loyalist soldiers like Ahmadinejad, they would have challenged his views in important areas, such as dealing with the United States. With Khamenei already viewing Obama’s positive overtures as a threat, any more internal dissent would have boosted Washington’s position against Iran in the negotiations.
There is also the question of Khamenei’s succession. In Iran, the choice for president is not the most important political decision; the choice for the next Supreme Leader is. This is a decision which according to the country’s constitution has to be made by the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body comprised of clerics whose religious rank must be at least Hojatoelslam, if not Ayatollah. In reality, however, the choice for next Supreme Leader is one which the Assembly of Experts usually rubber stamps. This is what happened when Khamenei himself was elected to the post; the decision belonged to his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini. Khamenei would also like to exercise this choice. Otherwise, Rafsanjani, the current head of Assembly of Experts, may make this decision. As the two have been rivals for many years, Khamenei would be right to be concerned.
A coalition of reformers and clergy, with Rafsanjani’s backing, could have challenged Khamenei’s choice for the next Supreme Leader. This concerns Khamenei not simply as a threat to his prestige, but also to his family’s welfare and political ambitions. Some analysts believe Khamenei wishes to secure his family’s well-being by appointing his son Mojtaba to replace him as Supreme Leader. Khamenei has been described as “Ali of the age” more and more in the Iranian media. This is a reference to Imam Ali, the first Shiite Imam who passed on the reigns to his son Hassan. It is very possible that the reason Khamenei is being referred to as the current version of Imam Ali is to prepare the ground for him to pass on power in the same manner.
Even if Mojtaba, who is considered a shrewd behind-the-scenes political operator, is not appointed, Khamenei will still want someone who will protect his family’s business and political interests. Otherwise, they may end up isolated like Khomeini’s family.
Ensuring that Ahmadinejad continues as president and that a coalition of powerful figures and reformers does not gain power is an overwhelming concern for the Supreme Leader, which may explain his actions surrounding Iran’s most controversial elections to date.