This article was first published by Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst.
Assertions and opinions in this publication are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
In his March 2012 Persian New Year (Nowruz) address to the Iranian nation, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared enormously confident in the future of the Islamic Republic and his reign as the most dominant political voice in the Islamic Republic. Speaking at a time of unprecedented international pressure on Tehran and a deteriorating economic situation at home, Khamenei chose to go on the offensive.
He pledged that no amount of international pressure would force Iran to give up its cherished nuclear program and self-confidently declared that the United States and the West were not in a position to act militarily against his country.
In a clear attempt to forewarn the Iranians about further economic sanctions to hit the country, Khamenei repeatedly urged his countrymen to opt for khodkafai (self-sufficiency) in economic consumption. The message took the Iranians back to the dark days of the 1980s, when Tehran’s revolutionary zeal at the time had isolated the country and led to an economic situation characterized by stagnation, widespread rationing and emigration.
By making self-sufficiency the central theme in his speech, Khamenei evoked the bleak image of other isolated states, such as North Korea. However, Iranian society is very different from that of North Korea. The Islamic Republic has throughout its 33-year history relied on a degree of popular support that is rooted in the regime’s ability to distribute public services and subsidize everyday goods.
If it is unable to meet the basic needs of the poorer sections of society, the regime’s political legitimacy will take another major and probably irreversible blow. This is probably apparent to Khamenei, raising the question of why he is fixed on a confrontational stance toward the West that could undermine the very regime he seeks to safeguard. The answer is tied to Khamenei’s belief that his political control inside Iran is now unshakeable, which in turn enables him to embark on a high-risk strategy toward the West.
Khamenei’s self-assured Persian New Year speech came less than three weeks after the most recent parliamentary elections in Iran, in which candidates loyal to the supreme leader emerged victorious. The election had been cast as a major test for Khamenei, who was engaged in battle against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters within the regime. Judged by international standards, the March 2, 2012 parliamentary elections were far from healthy. Before the elections, Iran’s unelected and Khamenei-controlled vetting organ, the Guardian Council, banned approximately a third of the aspiring candidates from contesting the 290 seats. Many of these – although there are no precise figures – were supporters of Ahmadinejad.
Regardless of the limitations of the elections, the process was deemed a victory for Khamenei. By engineering the further marginalization of his pushy president, whom he had once championed, Khamenei opted to demonstrate his grip on various levers of power – including institutions such as the Guardian Council – which give him an undisputed advantage within the regime.
Khamenei’s tactics, though, are not risk free. Through such political maneuvering, Khamenei has moved away from his hitherto cherished position of the “spiritual leader” and turned himself into the overt central decision-maker who often deals with minute policy questions. In the past, the supreme leader could distance himself from failed policies – such as the recent controversial subsidy reform agenda that has resulted in a bitter struggle between the parliament and the president – but distancing himself whenever convenient will no longer be an option when Khamenei has publicly positioned himself as the key policymaker.
However, seen from a different point of view, Khamenei could be said to have had few options but to seek more overt control of the politics of the regime in order to prevent being undermined by his rivals from the broader centrist-reformist camp and those from the so-called principlist (conservative) faction. The bitterness from the 2009 presidential elections still lingers strongly on both sides and Khamenei has no credible way of appealing to the leaders and supporters of the reformist movement. Its two key leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest and Khamenei’s faction has shown little sign of wanting to reach out and meet even the basic demands of the reformist movement.
While he had no option to turn on the reformists on his political left, from 2010 Khamenei also had to tackle mounting challenges to his authority from the Ahmadinejad faction. In a number of obvious instances – such as ignoring directives from Khamenei on both policy and appointments in his government – the president publicly stood up to Khamenei as few had done before him and made it clear that the he no longer considered the supreme leader his indispensable patron.
It was under these circumstances that Khamenei set out to engineer the March 2012 election results and pack the parliament with novice politicians that will pose no risk to his authority. Meanwhile, Khamenei’s consolidation efforts are highly likely to continue in the months ahead and as Iran prepares for the 2013 presidential elections. Already, the debate inside Iran is about which personality Khamenei will champion as the next president to succeed Ahmadinejad. One thing that is clear is that he will not gamble with anyone remotely likely to take a separate path as Ahmadinejad has done.
Iranian presidential elections have always been contests among senior politicians with strong name recognition among the population. This norm has been true going back to the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. There has arguably been only one presidential election surprise: Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005 against the regime elder Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. However, even then Ahmadinejad entered the race as the high-profile mayor of Tehran, although he was barely known before his Tehran mayoralty that began in 2003.
In other words, to discern who Khamenei might end up backing as the next president of Iran, one has to look for known figures on the political stage in Tehran who appear to be in the good grace of the supreme leader. Two individuals immediately emerge as having recently experienced an improvement in their profile and political standing. The first is Ali Akbar Velayati, a long-time confidant of Khamenei. The second is Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team. The U.S.-educated Velayati is someone who is close to Khamenei and would fulfill the loyalty requirements of the leader. A long-time foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, he has continued as Khamenei’s key adviser on foreign policy matters. In the past year, Velayati has become more visible at public events and in meeting foreign dignitaries. He was noticeably given a timely and important role as a policy coordinator dealing with the political turmoil in the Middle East. As director of “Council of Islamic Awakening” – a term Khamenei coined to refer to the unrest in the Arab world since December 2010 – Velayati has organized dozens of events in which his office has brought Egyptian, Libyan, Bahraini and other Arab activists to Tehran.
The role is significant as Khamenei has heavily invested in a public relations campaign across the Arab world to tout the Islamic Republic’s credentials and seek new regional inroads for Tehran during regional transformation. Velayati is a known and trusted entity and can probably appeal even to centrists such as Ayatollah Rafsanjani and his supporters. However, his long-time record as a stalwart regime loyalist, combined with his somber personality, will dampen voter excitement for his candidacy. Despite clear signs that Velayati is back in the public eye since he was let go as foreign minister by reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997, his lack of ability to generate much excitement about his candidacy is a handicap, given that Khamenei is known to prefer a degree of public enthusiasm for participating in Iranian elections.
Saeed Jalili is perhaps equally somber in his personal demeanor, albeit with a shorter record as a senior official in the ranks of the regime. He too has close ties with Khamenei and both come from the holy city of Mashhad. Jalili is an Iran-Iraq war veteran who entered service at the foreign ministry in 1989 and in 2001 became a senior director in policy planning in the Office of the Supreme Leader. This appointment then became the catapult for the 47-year old Jalili’s rise to become Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. In recent months Jalili’s profile has been widely publicized by state-controlled media loyal to Khamenei. In such efforts, Jalili is depicted as a war hero who lost a leg in combat and a steadfast supporter of the Islamic Republic and Khamenei.
Unlike Velayati, a handful of internet sites have already been set up by his purported supporters who want Jalili to run for the 2013 presidency. Such exploratory efforts are likely to be managed by Khamenei’s circles and aimed to determine the public receptiveness to the idea of Jalili as a potential presidential candidate.
Other names are also mentioned inside Iran as possible 2013 candidates, including Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and Tehran’s Mayor Mohammad Qalibaf. However, while both men are relatively close to Khamenei, they are often judged by observers inside Iran as independent-minded in the mold of Ahmadinejad. That is unquestionably a hurdle to any presidential ambitions they might have as Khamenei has now become explicit in demanding absolute allegiance.
Khamenei is pursuing his political consolidation efforts in an environment that is more fluid than what one might expect in an authoritarian system. Many of those remaining in the regime apparatus daily engage in a bitter fight aimed at point scoring that is often not rooted in policy differences but driven by personal and faction rivalries. In such increasingly common disputes, clear-cut fault lines do not exist and often it is one supposed right-winger pitched against another right-winger that makes the headlines.
A good example of this is the campaign waged by Ali Motahari, a senior right-wing parliamentarian who has come out against reformists, the Ahmadinejad faction and also the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In May 2012, Motahari accused the IRGC of rigging the March election results in favor of candidates they sought to elevate.
In turn, the IRGC has called Motahari’s claims baseless and is presently threatening to take legal action against him for slander. Motahari, who said the IRGC’s involvement in politics will jeopardize the future of the Islamic Republic, was backed among others by Mostafa Kavakabian, a prominent reformist who was ousted in the March elections. Kavakabian’s public support for Motahari is politically inexplicable given their past perspectives and shows the high degree of variability that exemplifies Iranian politics.
Another example is the latest overtures by Ahmadinejad towards Rafsanjani. Since his 2005 presidential campaign against Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad has forcefully set out to attack and discredit Rafsanjani, his family and his base of power. Such attacks continued after 2009 when Rafsanjani backed Ahmadinejad’s rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi and the reformist Green Movement. However, as the conflict between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei has reached new heights, the beleaguered president has sought to mend ties with Rafsanjani in the hope of forming a new front against the supreme leader. For the first time in many years, Ahmadinejad has publicly appeared alongside Rafsanjani and resumed attending the meetings of the Expediency Council, an important appointed organ chaired by Rafsanjani.
There is little doubt that the personal animosity between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad remains, but both men and the factions they lead see value in hampering Khamenei’s efforts to achieve absolute supremacy.
The supreme leader has a two-pronged domestic strategy for the foreseeable future. First, he will seek to continue his consolidation efforts and build on his achievements in the March 2012 parliamentary election. Second, Khamenei has to make sure the infighting within the regime does not get out of control. Khamenei has always welcomed political competition as long as it does not pose a challenge to his authority or risk bringing down the regime.
Khamenei’s preference appears clearly to be that Ahmadinejad should be allowed to finish his second term in office, due to terminate in August 2013. The supreme leader is under no illusion about the remaining ambitions of the incumbent president, which is to pave the way for an Ahmadinejad loyalist to succeed him. Khamenei will not allow this to happen and Ahmadinejad is currently too weak politically to be able to effectively counter this reality.
That said, Khamenei has seemingly calculated that it is better to have a weakened Ahmadinejad remain and finish his term than to risk unintended consequences by removing him early. This is why Khamenei has not backed calls from within Parliament to impeach the president. Instead, Khamenei loyalists in Parliament have merely threatened the president with impeachment, devised no doubt by the Office of the Supreme Leader as a pressuring tactic. It is also a question of perception, as it would be evidence of an embarrassing miscalculation for Khamenei to remove Ahmadinejad after he so strongly backed his re-election in the disputed 2009 elections.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s actions are not Khamenei’s only headache. Other factional fighting is continuing within the regime with the danger of further factions splitting away from the ruling elite. Khamenei cannot afford the further shrinking of the regime base and that is exactly why he has repeatedly called for restraint and cooperation among competing factions. It is a tough balancing act, but Iran’s Supreme Leader is gambling that he can still overcome the political turmoil at home, maintain the stewardship of the regime, and face down international pressure on his country.