On July 17, 2018, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader (Murshed), was 79 years old. Rumors have spread that he has been suffering from cancer for more than a decade, and in 2014 the state news agency published pictures of him recovering from prostate surgery. Although Khamenei’s predictions remain cautious, the Iranian government clearly deals with his succession as a matter of urgency. In December 2015, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, addressed the usually forbidden topic when he publicly admitted that a council within the Leadership Experts Council, the body that chose the supreme leader, to examine the potential successors. In March, after electing new members to the council for an eight-year term, Khamenei himself called for the likelihood that they would have to choose his alternative not as “low” probability . The Supreme Leader is the most powerful person in Iran and has absolute authority over the entire country. After thirty years of the rule of Iran , we wonder in this context: How did the supreme leader become the absolute ruler of Iran?
The end of the 1980s – after the death of Khomeini – of the last century was the first time for Ali Khamenei to stand in front of the Council of Experts of the leadership, in a desperate attempt to persuade them to refrain from choosing him , saying: “We must cry blood on an Islamic society to choose people like me to lead it .” Khamenei may remember his words for a moment and wonder whether he was really honest. The vote goes against his will, at least ostensibly, with the support of his friend at that time , Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who refuses to select a committee to run the country at the time, and insists on choosing a new supreme leader (Murshed) to nominate Khamenei ultimately as a temporary Murshed for one year till the time of making a referendum on amending the constitution concerning the qualities that must be available to those who are nominated for the post of Supreme Leader.
Observers considered Khamenei just one of a possible set of alternatives – not the most likely alternative .Khamenei, a 50-year-old cleric, lacked Khomeini’s stature. However, Rafsanjani, a close associate of Khomeini, told the council on June 4, 1989, after one day of Khomeini’s death, that Khomeini regarded Khamenei as qualified person for this post. The group elected Khamenei by 60 votes to 14.
Khamenei vowed to maintain stability as Supreme Leader. “I assure you that Iran continues its path on the path of the Islamic Revolution and will not deviate from the principles of the revolution,” he said in a speech in the year he took office. In fact, however, he quickly embarked on major changes in the Iranian political system. Given Khamenei’s moderate religious status – Khamenei was only Ayatollah, not Grand Ayatollah, or a reference, his election technically violated Iran’s constitution. So the political establishment quickly turned to a series of constitutional revisions that Khomeini had already ratified in an attempt to curb fanatic tensions after his death. Not only did they reduce the religious qualifications required of the Supreme Leader; they also increased the power of the post .
Khamenei “pious” later changed the constitution to allow him to remain in office forever, and even his relationship with Rafsanjani’s companion did not last. In the beginning, both men apparently belonged to the capitalist rightist camp in the Iranian regime, seeking to gain influence at the expense of leftists after Khomeini’s death. For Khamenei , this was one of the fateful events that had never been considered before and for Rafsanjani, Khamenei was a relatively weak person who would not have hindered him in drafting his new state, a project that Rafsanjani wanted to implement through the presidency to build a private sector economy with a state more open to the outside world, despite the agreement of the two men on the importance of maintaining a state ruled by clergy.
The Islamic Republic was divided under Khomeini. On the left wing, there were those who sought to maintain state control over the economy and impose moderate cultural policies. On the right, there were those who expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s intervention in the economy, but favored local politics inspired by the sharia. Khomeini combined the system together in the upper part with the support of the religious establishment – the original power brokers behind the revolution -, giving influence to each side at the same time. The common sense of struggle during the Iran-Iraq war, along with Khomeini’s enormous personal influence and charisma, kept these tensions from breaking during his reign. But there were deep divisions under the surface.
With the end of the war and the death of Khomeini, partisan and factional fighting entered a new phase, and Khamenei gradually began to strengthen his authority. During Rafsanjani’s first term from 1989 to 1993 as president, the two men co-existed peacefully, with Khamenei’s cautious backing of Rafsanjani’s post-war plans for economic liberalization and territorial unification, and tolerance for his efforts to promote cultural liberalization. However, opposition to Rafsanjani’s liberal agenda began to escalate among his hard line allies, who won a majority in parliament in 1992. Two years later, Khamenei publicly opposed Rafsanjani over the budget, criticizing him for the country’s growing economic crisis and rampant corruption. Rafsanjani backed away from his cultural liberal agenda and calmed the hearts of conservatives by giving them more seats in his government and increasing access to economic privileges .Thus, the competition between Khamenei and Rafsanjani continues until the death of the latter before this year, with Khamenei ‘s emergence at the top of power repeatedly .
Khamenei’s second problem was gaining power within the religious establishment. Khamenei received its near-unanimous support when he became supreme leader. In 1994, the Qam Secondary Teachers Association, an important religious and political institution, announced Khamenei as a reference. A number of scholars, however, a number of scholars have strongly questioned Ayatollah Khamenei’s theological qualifications. Faced with his perceived weakness, Khamenei embarked on a decades-long journey to build religious support. And the imposition of state-controlled bureaucracy at the top of the religious structure in Qom, which stripped the ayatollahs of their once-cherished financial independence and placed them under his tacit control. And he rewarded his supporters with political positions and financial privileges denied his critics. In this process, Khamenei managed to subject the Council of Experts, the only body with constitutional authority to monitor him.
Over the years, Khamenei has also steadily reduced the role of the elected government in Iran. Iranian presidents have found that their power is diminishing in their second term tords the Murshed Ali Khamenei, and the president becomes politically irrelevant in decision-making. Rouhani situation today is very bad, as in his 2013 campaign, he promised moderation, great economic improvements and Western foreign investment .After that, he negotiated and signed the multilateral nuclear agreement ; however, this agreement was strongly criticized by hawks in Iran as an unnecessary and dangerous step, leading to closer ties with the West. Conservatives have barred Rouhani from negotiating with the administration of former President Barack Obama on issues other than the nuclear program, such as Iran’s regional policy, the ballistic missile program, or the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.
But Rouhani’s weakness does not pose a threat to the Iranian regime, which relies increasingly on the security services rather than its popular legitimacy, to ensure its survival, and it is in the interests of Khamenei and the security services that the president is weak and unpopular, as he can no longer threaten Khamenei’s authority.
When Khamenei ascended to the post of Supreme Leader, the 50-year-old cleric not only lacked the necessary scientific qualifications to take up the position – he had not reached the level of religious diligence – but more importantly, his lack of charisma to maintain his position in a multi-polar leadership pyramid designed by Khomeini in a manner that fits its exceptional capabilities. On the left, those who sought to maintain state control over the economy found themselves with more moderate social policies. On the right , there were right-wing capitalists including Khamenei himself and his companion Rafsanjani – who called for non- government intervention in the economy but wanted to impose strict social measures inspired by Sharia , and behind the two wings , there was the military class, which Khomeini was keen to keep a distance between it and the political system as a whole, and in front of everyone , the main class of government and mediators of the authority of the advanced clerics stood . Khamenei did not stay long before he embarked on a series of changes in the administrative hierarchy of the Iranian political system to ensure the consolidation of his authority. He began with constitutional amendments that not only reduced the scientific qualifications required for the position of Supreme Leader but also increased his powers, it has enhanced the authority of Murshed over executive, judicial and legislative branches of the regime through the creation of a new body of governance between the authorities – controlled by Khamenei – under the name of the “Expediency Discernment Council”.
Through this method, Khamenei succeeded in subjugating and encircling the “Council of Experts”, the only body authorized to monitor the leader in the Iranian political system. At the same time, al-Murshed began gradually absorbing the powers of the elected government, replacing them with shadow structures under his direct supervision – including an advisory council on foreign relations and a parallel intelligence apparatus, and planted thousands of his representatives in ministries, universities, religious bodies and even the armed forces, forming a special bureaucratic structure that he actually reduced the roles assigned to the government and reduced the distance between the army and the political system. However, Khamenei’s greatest change in the current Iranian regime was in his implicit alliance with the Revolutionary Guard, helping the strong entity to establish its footing in the regime politically, paradoxically, with the support of Rafsanjani himself.
In order to consolidate his rule in Iran, Khamenei has established a strong relationship with the IRGC, a parallel military force alongside the regular army, loyal to the supreme leader, which is charged with protecting Iran’s security and Islamic character. His approach was largely financial. Over the past two decades, as Iran has gone intermittently for economic liberalization, Khamenei has helped Iranian state-owned IRGC companies to buy at the lowest prices on the market and have directed winning government contracts toward them. Based on this, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has become a multi-billion dollar trade force with hundreds of companies. These companies employ hundreds of thousands of Iranians directly, and millions depend indirectly on them in their pensions. For example, the IRGC controls Khitam Al-Anbiya Construction Company, Iran’s largest engineering company with more than 160,000 people. As the economic power of the Revolutionary Guards grew, it was ready to assert itself politically. The crucial moment came in 1999, when thousands of students went to the streets to protest the closure of a reformist newspaper where Twenty-four leaders of the IRGC wrote an angry letter to President Mohammad Khatami, criticizing him for not stopping the demonstrations and implicitly calling for him to resign. They wrote “We have been patient and we do not believe that anything else can be tolerated if it is not addressed.” This was the first time that the IRGC had intervened directly in politics, and this movement had neutralized Khatami’s reform agenda. Iran’s deep state has succeeded in making a soft coup against its government.
Since then, the reformers have been weakened and are at the back of the deep state. This trend continued to be headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office in 2005. There were also more government offices and parliamentary seats held by members of the Revolutionary Guard, and the organizations associated with the Revolutionary Guards dominated most of the newly privatized entities at the time. Then the disputed presidential elections came to an end in 2009. After the Green Movement protests broke out, the IRGC oversaw the crackdown, increasing its power. What officials in the deeply deep state now take care of is to defend their institutions against what they call a soft war “Led by the West. As they were surprised by the demonstrations in 2009, they see themselves as permanent guards against the efforts of the United States and its Western allies to undermine Iran. As the deep state prepares to succeed Khamenei, it will seek a candidate that can help it continue the conflict.
The resignation of Muhamad Jawad Zarif from his post was a confirmation that it is run by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. The minister did not hide the reason for the resignation. He told the electorate’s website, calculated on the reformers after the spread of photographs of Assad’s meetings noting that Zarif has no credibility as a foreign minister in the world, and he said in another statement : “”My resignation came to defend the status of the ministry and its vital role in strengthening the national security of the country.” It is possible to say that Zarif disclosed the Iranian regime, the mechanism in which it operates, and deliberately deviated from the rules in force of the State, because of a sense of dignity, as a result of not being invited to attend the meeting with Assad, which means explicitly that Iran’s involvement in Syrian affairs is not within the purview of the Foreign Ministry, and the same applies to other files in which Iran is strongly involved, such as Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The world knows that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Minister is not within the narrow circle that decides foreign policy. The world realizes that the minister and the ministry implement policies set by another department, which is under the authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The world also knows that the president and the presidency have formal authority on the strategic issues, but the new thing that witness from its family came to stamp on these facts, and says frankly that the institutions of the state are marginalized and have no role, and who governs the country is the supreme leader (Murshed) and the Revolutionary Guards. Therefore, the actual meeting between Assad and the Murshed was confined to the national security service, and the second meeting between Rouhani and Assad included Qassem Soleimani.
The timing and context of the resignation reflect an internal situation that has no consensus on Syria, as envisioned by the Iranian propaganda machine. It seems that the differences in views reached a critical point, the resignation came to make it public. Hence, the repercussions of this resignation will not stand at this point, and is likely to interact in the foreseeable future.
When protest demonstrations took place in Iranian cities on more than one occasion, during the past two years, demonstrators were shouting slogans condemning the Iranian intervention in Syria. The slogans reflected a state of congestion in the street, and it became clear that there are Iranian sectors that reject foreign adventures that cost the country a lot in addition to the loss of wealth, to defend a corrupt and criminal regime that has no future in Syria, it put Iran in international isolation, and the Iranian citizen paid the price from his daily food because of the blockade, and it is well known that interventions by the military in other countries will not be of benefit to the Iranian people , and is not interested in them and do not care about the issue of Iran’s domination over four Arab countries.
Zarif’s resignation is only the starting point of an internal struggle that reached the top of the government. The Foreign Minister would not have raised his voice if he had not been confident that there was a broad tide behind him. This was reflected in the refusal of President Hassan Rouhani the resignation and the signing of 135 deputies demanding the minister to give up the resignation. This means that this wing scored a goal in the direction of the other direction represented by Qassim Soleimani, as the architect of the foreign military adventures in which the Supreme Leader stands behind. The confrontation may not be resolved overnight, but it is open at a time when Iran is experiencing a suffocating economic blockade. It can develop and take on wider dimensions depending on the effects of the blockade. It turns out , day after day that Iran’s foreign interventions in Arab region will be a burden on Iran itself and its share from the damage is not less than the countries that paid the price dearly .
It is notable in the political life of Iran, four decades after the revolution, the movement is usually done as a result of gathering around figures representing political trends. Conservatives are entrenched in organizations and groups close to the Wali al-Faqih, such as the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij and the old guard of the Wali al-Faqih system of constitutional institutions while the reformist trend usually results from the mobilization of young people and students around reformist figures such as President Mohammad Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as happened in the Green Intifada in 2009 in demonstrations that rejected the results of the presidential elections. Symbols of the reformist movement are turned to reformed symbols and models on which young people are gathered around to form their reform movement that aborted. The rounds of the struggle between the reformists and the conservatives have continued so far under the second term of reformist president Hassan Rowhani, which appeared to be the main milestone of Shiite Islam in Iran.
The contradiction between the two views has been apparent at various levels of Iran’s political debate, even with respect to foreign policy. Following the nuclear agreement with the major powers, the media close to the Revolutionary Guards portrayed Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif as not a true revolutionary, and it is the same accusation against Oil Minister Begin Zangana, who came to his post at the expense of Rustom Qasimi, close to the Guard, and they said while Zarif was studying at the University of Denver, the Revolutionary Guard commanders were standing in the trenches fighting against the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, the generals are well aware of their need for technocrats for state administration and relations with the outside world, which sets a permanent flexible ceiling for the battle of tug-of-war between the two parties. The debate continues. Despite the enormous expansion of the IRGC’s influence, the founding alphabets that lay the groundwork for the military and political work – Khamenei’s keenness not to destroy it altogether – make the Guard forced to use technocrats for action, and it will always need the theological cover given to it by clerics headed by Khamenei.
Iranian Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies