Unlike Hassan Rouhani and the members of parliament, Ali Khamenei was not voted into his position by the people of Iran. This might seem a triviality to some but the fact that Khamenei was chosen to become the Supreme Leader by the Assembly of Experts means that nobody can really know just how many Iranians really support him especially in view of the popular vote that moderates and reformist received during both the presidential and the parliamentary elections.
During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s terms as president, this fact wasn’t critical at all since Ahmadinejad and Khamenei usually saw eye to eye on most issues. But Since Hassan Rouhani became president through national elections, the question regarding the legitimacy of Khamenei’s rule as the leader and representor of the Iranian people is growing.
Khamenei obviously is the supreme ruler of Iran but does he represent the Iranian people more or less than Rouhani? And if it is less, why is Iran still touting itself as a democracy?
Two voices from Tehran
As outlined in an earlier article entitled “Two Voices from Tehran“, there is an obvious division by the moderates who are effectively led by Rouhani and the hardliners who are backed by Khamenei. Rouhani, who was voted into office by the Iranian people on a ticket for change, has voiced his criticism of Khamenei’s views on numerous issues such as the economy, freedom of speech, the rights of women, political prisoners, foreign policy etc…
To be honest, his criticisms are never openly against Khamenei and usually voiced in a roundabout way, followed by his denials regarding any division between himself and Khamenei: “the enemies would never see their wishes realized to have discord between the Leader and the branches” .
To those who don’t buy into the moderateness of Rouhani, his manner of criticism (roundabout + denials) is proof that he is a hardliner on par with Khamenei. Others continue to believe in his moderateness and his promises for change but blame the nature of the “supreme” powers of Khamenei, pointing out that people who dared to stand against Khamenei politically found themselves under house arrest such as Karroubi & Mousavi or politically sidelined such as Khatami & Rafsanjani.
Khamenei’s supreme powers
The fear of angering Khamenei is not only based on Khamenei’s supreme powers but on the many facets of the regime which are hardline in nature. Clashing with Khamenei means clashing with the Guardian Council, an unelected body which has the powers to approve or disqualify candidates for all elections as well as laws passed by the parliament. It would also mean clashing with the IRGC, a branch of the armed forces with immense military, political and economic power loyal to Khamenei as well as clashing with the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary militia which is controlled by the IRGC.
In short, clashing with Khamenei effectively requires the dissolution of all the unelected hardline elements of the regime which, to date, is powerful enough to protect and preserve itself. Only a ground-roots uprising such as was experienced in the Arab Spring could achieve such a change and, in tune with the countries which experienced such upheavals, no one can be certain if the rulers of Iran in the aftermath will represent the people or not.
Khamenei retakes front stage
For now, it’s obvious that Khamenei is not a happy man: He is angry, frustrated, paranoid and worried about the direction that Iran could take following the signing of the nuclear deal fearing that the call for change by the Iranian people, as seen in their votes in the elections for the presidency and the parliament, will materialize and ruin the revolutionary ideals he so loves. At stake, in his mind, is not only his vision of the welfare of the Iranian people but his legacy as the protector of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution.
For the first two years of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, Khamenei took a back seat. He was still pulling strings and would suddenly jump to center stage to voice his commands, but his overall support of Rouhani was clearly understood. But once the reality of the signing of the JCPoA hit home, Khamenei changed gears and he took front stage: suddenly, it was Khamenei who was dictating foreign policy, directing the implementation of the nuclear deal, banning US brands from Iran, dictating the strategy of the economy etc…
The growing strength of the reformists in the parliamentary elections only increased Khamenei’s unease and his willingness to step over Rouhani.
Khamenei continues to rule
In fact, lately, Khamenei is becoming more critical of Rouhani and his biggest achievement to date, the nuclear deal and the revival of the Iranian economy. While Rouhani courted the West, Khamenei made it clear that the US (and the UK) were still Iran’s greatest enemies.
While Rouhani worked to place Iran in the global economy, Khamenei believed that such a move would be a “loss and defeat” for Iran, preferring his “resistance economy” free from “foreign influence” and the focus on “culture” as a model to preserve the nature of the regime. While Rouhani tried to iron out the problems of dealing with global financial organizations which feared US sanctions, Khamenei introduced many “I told you so” elements into his speeches: “Some of us of course knew that something like this might happen but others didn’t“. While Rouhani called on the regime to allow for more freedom of speech, Khamenei allowed a crackdown on political critics, journalists, artists and activists while maintaining that the internet was “a real battlefield” promoting “un-Islamic thought”.
Despite Rouhani’s popularity, it’s clear that he has lost his power-base within the regime. His promises of wide-ranging social changes will be left unfulfilled for now and his calls for “constructive engagement” and moderateness will remain in the spheres of political propaganda. If he manages to win the next elections in 2017, he may have a chance at reinforcing his political power but then again, he might not win and he might not be able to stand against Khamenei. And if Khamenei does pass away until then, it’s not clear whether Rouhani’s call for changes will be accepted by the next Supreme Leader or not.