Boston Globe: As Iran prepares to hold a runoff to its presidential elections, much of the international media are focused on the two remaining candidates, the pragmatist
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his archconservative rival Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, the façade of elections conceals the remarkable changes that Iran has undergone in the past few years. Boston Globe
By Ray Takeyh
AS IRAN prepares to hold a runoff to its presidential elections, much of the international media are focused on the two remaining candidates, the pragmatist Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his archconservative rival Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, the façade of elections conceals the remarkable changes that Iran has undergone in the past few years.
In a gradual yet relentless manner, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has consolidated his power over the theocracy. The Islamic Republic that had always featured competing centers of power and a perennial struggle between elected and unelected institutions has been reduced to a rule by a cagy supreme leader who has finally transformed himself into an absolute ruler.
On the surface, Khamenei always possessed an impressive array of powers, as he is the commander of the armed forces and can countermand both legislative and electoral verdicts. However, the reality was always more complex. Given Khamenei’s limited stature within the clerical hierarchy, he had to rely on conservative mullahs who had elevated him to such an august position. Such a dependency implied that at times conservative oligarchs such as Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the powerful Guardian Council, and Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, the head of the judiciary, would simply disregard the leader’s preferences with impunity. On numerous occasions when Khamenei appealed to the judiciary to revoke a defendant’s sentence or called on the Guardian Council to reverse itself on a legislative matter, he was simply ignored.
Nor did Khamenei always fare better among the reformers. During the initial phase of Muhammad Khatami’s presidency, the reformers employed their impressive popular mandate to compel Khamenei to endorse some of their enterprising initiatives. The purging of the Ministry of Intelligence and the passage of foreign investment laws that Khamenei disparaged were all bold reformist measures that a reluctant leader accepted. Facing a president and a parliament with an impressive electoral majority and a mobilized constituency, Khamenei initially simply acquiesced to many of the reformers’ key proposals.
Despite the Western depictions of Khamenei as an all-powerful, unyielding leader, within the corridors of clerical power he was often viewed as an indecisive politician whose limited religious standing and a lack of popular appeal made him vulnerable to both conservative rebuke and reformers’ defiance. Khamenei appeared a hapless politician caught between contending forces that he could neither control nor reconcile.
In a remarkable achievement, Iran’s supreme leader has turned the tables against his critics and detractors. During the past few years, Khamenei has gradually translated his constitutional powers into actual institutional dominance. More than any of his clerical contemporaries, Khamenei was perceptive in recognizing the rise of a new generation of conservatives who were dismayed by their elders’ corruption, lack of revolutionary resolution, and an inability to deal effectively with problems of the state. Khamenei soon placed himself on the ”right” side of the generational divide, appointing many younger conservatives to key posts within the Revolutionary Guards, ministries, and the judiciary. The February 2004 parliamentary elections that witnessed the triumph of many of these conservatives essentially completed Khamenei’s political hegemony.
The current Iranian presidential election is remarkable in only one respect, as it highlights the ensuing generational divide. While older revolutionary leaders such as former president Hashemi Rafsanjani continued to insist that they can eclipse and tame Khamenei, the younger presidential aspirants such as Ahmedinejad are effusive in their praise of the leader. Irrespective of the verdict of the presidential contest, the future of Iran belongs not to the aging mullahs who were present at the creation of the revolution, but to Khamenei and his youthful, reactionary loyalists.
Iran is once more undergoing a period of transition. A mere eight years ago, Iran appeared on a threshold of a democratic breakthrough, as the reformers captured the popular imagination by insisting that in order for the Islamic Republic to remain vital, it had to accommodate basic rights and freedoms. The brief democratic interlude has all but vanished. To be sure, Iran will still have elections and plebiscites; however, such political rituals will no longer challenge the essential parameters of the state. A supreme leader widely contemptuous of democratic accountability and confident of his mandate from heaven has finally consolidated his rule, ending one of the most vibrant reform movements in the history of the modern Middle East.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.