March 12, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Iran: Khamenei Consolidates More Power

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As of early March 2012, Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was solidifying both his personal and office's control over Iranian politics, at the expense of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the office of the presidency as a whole. This most recent reorientation of power around his office, seen most clearly in the preliminary results of the 02 March 2012 parliamentary elections in which loyalists to Khamenei dominated over those who identified with Ahmadinejad, should be viewed as a continuation of a characteristic of Khamenei that dates from the 1980s, a characteristic that has a profound effect on on-going and future efforts by Western governments to deal with Iran.

Simply put, Khamenei has positioned himself and his office as the last of the original revolutionaries still standing, consolidating tremendous power at the expense of fellow revolutionaries and the very offices they once held. The situation in Iran today is such that it was Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who responded on 07 March to U.S President Barak Obama's most recent speech to AIPAC. In a nearly unprecedented move, Khamenei put out a statement, a press release as it were, praising Obama's stated preference for diplomacy as "a wise remark indicating taking distance from illusion." Firstly, it is exceedingly rare for an Iranian official of any stature to publicly praise an American speech; secondly, one would have thought the office of the Iranian president would have been the one to make such a statement. And yet it was Khamenei, the only man still standing. As he stood in Teheran on 07 March in front of a picture of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and assumed a larger public role in the current tensions with the West, those who had stood with him in the 1979 revolution and beyond--Ayatollah Montazeri, Mehdi Karoubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami , and now Ahmadinejad--were now all marginalized, under house arrest, without power or soon to be. The answer to how Khamenei has done this for so long is found in the aforementioned characteristic.


Khamenei's Rise

The characteristic can be summarized in this manner: Khamenei, since the 1979 revolution, has strengthened various political offices (the presidency, the post of prime minister) to increase his personal power, only then to turn around and weaken/eliminate the very office/position that led to his rise. This is important to readers who are grappling with how to influence/control current president Ahmadinejad, because there is strong possibility the office of the presidency, as it is currently formatted and selected through direct popular vote, will soon end. Policy makers who spend all their energies on how to deal with the current and future Iranian president could perhaps better spend their time devising strategies that take into account the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader already vet candidates for parliament and now might have this very same parliament select the president instead of direct elections.

During his two terms as president (1981-1988), Khamenei benefited to a degree from a relatively powerful office of prime minister, then held by Mir Hossein Mousavi. It was Mousavi who led the country through the Iran-Iraq war. While Mousavi focused on improving his country's performance against Iraq while improving Iran's economy, Khamenei solidified his control over the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and powerful merchants. He continued his close relationship with then-supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, which helped Khamenei garner support among the all-important religions leaders who were initially dismissive of Khamenei due to his low standing in the religious ranks. After Khomeini dismissed his then-designated successor Ayatollah Montazeri in March 1989, he named Khamenei as his successor. Khamenei assumed power on 4 June 1989.

Less than six weeks later, revisions to the constitution (supported by Khomeini in his last months) eliminated the office of Prime Minister and increased the power of the supreme leader, who of course was now Khamenei. This bears repeating: having benefited from prime minister Mousavi's steady hand during the most tenuous period of post-revolutionary Iran, Khamenei then helps abolish the very position of prime minister, and increases the power of the office he, Khamenei, had just assumed. Furthermore, having come into the position despite not being an Ayatollah or "marja", Khamenei quickly moved to elevate both himself and his office, becoming a Grand Ayatollah and issuing fatwas. As recent as 2010, Khamenei issued a fatwa that said his own rule was a "branch of the guardianship of the Prophet Mohammad and the Infallible Imams." Not just content with increasing his religious claim to power, Khamenei, the cleverest of Iranian politicians, has also continually shifted political power in Iran to increase his office's power. In the 1994 parliamentary elections, during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), the Guardian council, controlled by Khamenei, began vetting candidates, disqualifying those it deemed unsuitable or qualified for office, a trend that continues to the present. This move helped lessen the power somewhat of the office of the president, much as handpicking the United States congress would effect the ability of the president to make reforms. Through the terms of Rafansjani and Mohammad Khatami, Khamenei increased the role of the guardian council to select candidates for parliament, letting people think the two presidents were successful reformers all the while weakening their very ability to reform anything.


The Challenges Ahead

Now, after getting rid of the office of prime minister, deciding who gets to run for parliament, and selecting and supporting Ahmadinejad over the popular reformist Rafsanjani in 2005, Khamenei is once again shuffling the levers of Iranian power to fit his goals. His split with his erstwhile ally Ahmadinejad stems from Ahmadinejad's attempts to gain the support of the all-important IRGC and wealthy merchants, long-time allies of Khamenei, with the goal of making the country somewhat more open (relatively speaking, of course) and, more importantly, less ruled by the office of the Supreme Leader. This is something Khamenei can not tolerate, so he is now working to ensure Ahmadinejad is increasingly marginalized but also to ensure Ahmadinejad's presumed favorite in the 2013 election, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, doesn't win power.

In the fall of 2011, Khamenei stated rather openly that he is open to getting rid of direct elections for the presidency, saying "the country's ruling political system is a presidential one in which the president is directly elected by the people, making this a good and effective method. However, if one day, probably in the distant future, it is deemed that the parliamentary system is more appropriate for the election of officials with executive power, there would be no problem in altering the current structure." Of course, it will be Khamenei who defines "the distant future" in Iran.



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