The differences between Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and its President, Hassan Rouhani, are growing bigger with every sound bite and what is at stake is nothing less than the future nature of the regime itself.
For decades, Khamenei’s iron will governed everything about Iran. Presidents would kowtow to his will and in the fiasco following the 2009 elections, he made it clear that he was a regime man through and through when he backed the conservative winner of the elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over the protests of rigged elections by a large portion of the Iranian population which had voted for moderate candidates.
But Rouhani isn’t just another president: His popularity is built on his moderateness and his call for far–reaching changes in Iran’s economy, its foreign relations, its human rights etc…He may have grown up within the regime but there can be no doubt that Rouhani view the regime as capable of change.
Both men are popular within their own spheres and although questions abound about just how much Rouhani is a moderate since his past is intertwined with hardline elements within the regime, it’s become obvious that the conflict between the two is growing into a veritable tug of war or a tug of peace.
Understanding both men
In one corner is the “Supreme Leader”, chosen by the Assembly of Experts and supported by all hardliners, conservative organizations and, last but not least, the IRGC and most of Iran’s military. Khamenei is fighting to maintain the status quo established back in 1979: A regime, built on and made to maintain a religious theocracy fueled by revolutionary ideals. He is 77 years old, is in frail health and is thinking of his legacy. Khamenei’s mindset is governed by his vision of a Global Islamic Awakening which would revolutionize the whole world, his idealization of martyrdom, his fierce nationalistic pride and his readiness to go to war if this pride is marred in any way. He is the heavyweight in this case since his powers are “supreme” by definition (he is to remain Supreme Leader for life) and his power base is institutionalized through Iran’s governing bodies and organizations.
In the other corner is the president, elected by the Iranian people and supported by all moderates, most of Iran’s younger and more urban populace and much of the Western world. Rouhani is fighting for change he promised back in 2013: A country, built on and made to maximize the welfare of the population in the future and fueled by positive interaction with the world. He is 68 years old, in good health and is thinking about getting elected once again in 2017. Rouhani’s mindset is governed by his vision of a modernized and open society and his steadfast belief in negotiations and peace. He lacks Khamenei’s constitutional and military power but his popularity is on the rise and he is backed by other moderate leaders such as ex-presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyyed Mohammad Khatami.
It’s a classic conflict of conservativeness vs. moderateness, of maintaining the past vs. building a better future, of Islamic fundamentalism vs. Islamic secularism, the power of the armed forces vs. the power of the people, of revolution and resistance vs. global acceptance etc…
Since 2013 up until today
For the past three years, Rouhani’s path was symbolized by his willingness to negotiate and sign what would become the JCPoA, the nuclear deal. On his election campaign, he promised to free Iranians form the yoke of nuclear-related sanctions which were slapped on by the UNSC for violations of IAEA rules and protocols. He betted his political career on “constructive engagement” with the West in order to reach a deal which would not only free up $150 billion in frozen assets but would bring Iran out of the cold and into the fold of the global community. His bet payed off already during negotiations but peaked when the JCPoA was signed and then implemented. He remains an ardent believer in negotiations as he stated recently that “extremist ideology tells us not to trust anyone, not to trust our neighbors or our friends, while the moderate thought tells us that we have to talk with the world“.
During those two years, Khamenei mostly bided his time by giving Rouhani the minimum support he needed to sign the deal. He made sure that he didn’t overly endorse the nuclear deal nor did he try to stop the deal for fear of stoking up the anger of hopeful Iranians who had enough of being isolated under Rouhani’s predecessor, Ahmadinejad. Khamenei is a more conservative gambler and all he wanted to achieve was a removal of the sanctions not on a monetary level but on a level of national pride. Once the sanctions were lifted, he returned to his “resistance economy“, an economy which would not be overly influenced by foreign trade and investments which clashed directly with Rouhani’s vision of the economy.
Not surprisingly, it was the signing of the JCPoA which led to the open tug of war between the two but the tug of war only grew more visible after the elections for the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts in which the moderates identified with Rouhani strengthened dramatically. Suddenly, the balance of power between the two, which had been under Khamenei until then, inched towards Rouhani.
The JCPoA that will lead to war or peace
The signing of the JCPoA was viewed as a major triumph by Rouhani: it was the proof that negotiations could be more effective than revolutions and that change was possible in a world of changing power bases. From the first day of negotiations, Rouhani enjoyed a lot of support from the world’s superpowers and the Western world in general. Moscow courted him fervently and Beijing backed him up while the EU and the Obama administration found in him the seed of hope that could neutralize the fears of a third world war ignited in the Middle East. Rouhani was a breath of fresh Iranian air to Iranians and to the world after years of stifled seclusion and oppression and continues to this day to claim that Iran is not a threat to its neighbors nor to the world. And yet, he had three main problems: 1) he remains constitutionally and institutionally weaker than Khamenei, 2) Iran continued to be embroiled in regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Gaza etc… and 3) the lifting of sanctions following the JCPoA was marred by the fact that the US slapped on some missile-related sanctions, effectively scaring away potential foreign investors.
For Khamenei, the signing of the JCPoA was a clear crossing of some of the “red lines” which he had outlined and it symbolized a normalization between Iran and the US, a normalization which is not compatible with Khamenei’s deep-seated revolutionary hatred of the USA so his first order of command, after taking over Rouhani’s role in implementing the JCPoA was to ban 244 American brands from Iran’s economy and ban any further negotiations with the US. This would have been enough for Khamenei to remain antagonistic but Rouhani’s growing popularity, the world’s growing interest and involvement in Iran’s conflicts and its military prowess as well as the added sanctions which would freeze most Western investors only increased his antagonism.
Rouhani is his own best spokesman but in order to understand what Khamenei really thinks, one must listen to his supporters such as IRGC chief Mohammad Jafari who echoed Khamenei’s antagonism when he said that the JCPoA was “not a cause for pride” and was forced against the will of the Iranian people and that he is waiting for “an order” to go to war against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain which he called “stupid” and “politically backward”.
These rumbles of war may seem acceptable to Khamenei’s proud and martyrdom-seeking psyche but it probably horrifies Rouhani who understands that normalization with the world is not possible unless Iran’s words and actions maintain a path towards peace.