Spring - 2013 Iran1

Published on June 19th, 2013


Iranian Presidential Elections: Khamenei’s Strategy Backfires

By M. Clark

In 2009 Iran’s supreme and de-facto leader Ali Khamenei felt the annoying breath of his of his old rival Mir Housein Mousavi down his neck, allegedly rigged the election and crushed a subsequent uprising. Four years later he took all measures to assure a conservative victory without a similar drama. The landslide election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani indicates that the tactic backfired spectacularly.

In Iranian politics, presidents and prime minister come and go, but the real power-wielder, the Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has remained the same. With his increasingly white goatee beard, black turban and trademark Palestinian scarf Khamenei has ruled his country with an arch-conservative iron fist since the death of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini in the late 1980s.

From Khamenei’s perspective the last years have been a bumpy ride. Being used to the role as an unquestioned religious and political authority, elevated above the petty wrangling of the country’s politicians and less notable religious leaders, Khamenei has found it increasingly necessary to enter the battleground in order to preserve his own power base. During both the presidential elections of 2009 and 2013 he did so, succeeding in the first and failing in the second.


The rise and fall of the Green Movement

Even if the vast majority of people who would otherwise have run for the Iranian presidency is disqualified from the outset for reasons that are probably only fully understood by Ali Khamenei and his allies in the mighty Guardian Council – a 12-man unelected body that represents the real power centre of Iranian politics – there has always been an element of contest between competing political factions that claim loyalty to the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

With time this competition has generated two broad currents that the press often refers to as conservatives and reformists. The latter group, which has always been sceptically viewed by Khamenei, has been far from impotent and over the last couple of decades produced presidents like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). As these presidents have tended to have moderate agendas and sought to avoid conflict with the West it must have seemed a relief to the Supreme Leader to  finally welcome a hard-line anti-western populist like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad into office in 2005.

What looked like a perfect love affair between two conservative hard-liners lasted only a couple of years. Khamenei might have thought that Ahmedinejad was happy to be his lapdog and subsequently attempted to run the affairs by recruiting loyalists to strategic departments like defense, intelligence and foreign affair. As Ahmedinejad embarked upon a campaign to undermine the very same men, including the current chairman of parliament Ali Larijani, the relationship grew sour. The ship’s captain could no longer trust the first mate.

During the election in 2009 another headache emerged for the Supreme Leader as an old foe, Mir Houssein Mousavi, decided to challenge the unruly Ahmedinejad for the presidency. During the 1980s Khamenei and Mousavi had been political rivals, representing the right-wing and left-wing, respectively, of the Islamic Republic during the supreme reign of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The problem with Mousavi was that he viewed Khamenei in the same way as he had always done, a mere political rival, and far from an elevated authority in black cloak. In order to see off the challenge of Mousavi Khamenei was forced to enter into a marriage of convenience with Ahmedinejad. What became known as The Green Movement was effectively crushed and demonstrations were put down by the revolutionary guards, leaving around 30 people dead and many more wounded.

When Ahmedinejad was sworn in for a second period he tried to kiss Khamenei’s cheek but was firmly pushed back by the Supreme Leader and in his second attempt had to be content with a taste of his robe.


The revenge of the reformists

It seems like the experience of 2009, and maybe some intransigence of old age, had made Ali Khamenei even more restrictive towards presidential candidates than ever before. In this year’s presidential election the usual few hundred excluded candidates were joined by names that earlier had been allowed to compete for the country’s second highest position.

Rafsanjani was excluded because he was “too old” (obviously not a relevant criterion for the man behind the decision) and Ahmedinejad’s last straw in trying to preserve some of his dwindling power, his chief-of-staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was kicked out because of his affiliation to an unorthodox sect as well as his friendly statements about arch foes USA and Israel. This left a conservative-dominated field of 7 candidates where only one was counted as a reformist and another one, former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, was viewed as a centrist operating more or less independently between the two factions.

What looked like an easy victory for Khamenei’s allies took an unexpected turn on Election Day. Just before the election the reformists, unofficially led by former president Khatami, withdrew their only candidate and decided to put all their force behind the centrist Rouhani. This proved to be a masterstroke and the surprisingly high voter turnout (estimated at about 72%) led to a crushing defeat for the conservative candidates. Whereas Rouhani received more than 50% of the votes and winning already in the first round, the most successful conservative candidate – the mayor of Teheran Baqer Qalibaf – came a distant second with around 16%. The most hard-line of the candidate, the Khamenei-backed war veteran Saeed Jalili, only managed a disappointing third position.

What all this means is that Khamenei is back to where he was before 2005, the last time he had to work with a reform-minded president. Ahmedinejad’s confrontational approach is set to be replaced with Rouhani’s emphasis on “soft power” – strength through economic development – coupled with a normalization of relations with USA and other Western nations. These priorities are interlinked as an easing (and eventually lifting) of the crippling international sanctions is conditioned by some kind of compromise relating to Iran’s nuclear programme. Rouhani has stated that he favours negotiations to enable a peaceful resolution of the issue, while at the same time preserving Iran’s “rights”.

How far will he be allowed to go? After all, the strategic levers of the state are still safely in the hands of the Supreme Leader. Will Ali Khamenei seek to undermine Rouhani or is he willing to offer the moderates and reformists concessions? As tempting as it may be for him to tear Rouhani’s agenda into shreds, he will have to keep in mind that the high voter mobilization favouring a new Iranian policy can only be ignored at his own peril. The masses that took the streets following the elections in 2009 may multiply if Khamenei decides to turn the new president into a political castrate. If Khamenei’s core ambition is to preserve the Islamic Republic that his predecessor Khomeini founded in 1979 he may have to accept a system that allows for genuine change from within.


*Cover photo by Safwat Sayed, ruin photo by Nick Taylor

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