OpinionIran in the World PressA cleric steeped in ways of power

A cleric steeped in ways of power


New York Times: As Iran defies the West over its nuclear program, the public face of the nation has become the outspoken president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who by most accounts has been the primary architect of Iran’s combative foreign policy and the force behind the president’s own power.
The New York Times

By Michael Slackman

Published: September 8, 2006

TEHRAN – As Iran defies the West over its nuclear program, the public face of the nation has become the outspoken president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who by most accounts has been the primary architect of Iran’s combative foreign policy and the force behind the president’s own power.

Cloaked in religious robes, with a black turban signaling he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Khamenei delivers the same blistering, anti-American, anti-British, anti-Israeli message as the president.

His political evolution charts his own rise to power. As the Friday prayer leader nearly two decades ago, he once questioned the absolute power of Iran’s supreme leader, saying Islamic law and the Constitution must come first. Today he has emerged as an aggressive defender of his own right to have final say in all matters of state and religion, a power he has not been afraid to exercise.

Political analysts, clerics and former government officials here say they believe Khamenei has pushed for a more confrontational approach with the West because he grew disillusioned with the so-called “confidence-building” policy pursued by the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s.

They said he also sought to consolidate his power by building a political base among Iran’s more fundamentalist circles that are suspicious of the West. Along the way, he succeeded in sidelining most of those with independent authority, such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former two- term president, who pushed to select Khamenei as supreme leader.

“He wanted to preserve his power and he has been quite successful,” said Mohsen Kadivar, a senior reformist cleric in Tehran. “His power is stronger today. Everyone who is in power is to obey him, completely. But his authority, which comes from people’s support, has not increased.”

Khamenei’s political evolution from the traditionalist right to the more fundamentalist camp was described in interviews with present and former state officials, clerics who personally worked with him before and after the revolution, Western diplomats in Tehran and political analysts. Virtually all insisted on anonymity, fearing retribution if they spoke publicly. And they all cautioned that they held only pieces of the puzzle.

Discussing the leader is such a sensitive subject here that the government press office declined to submit a request to visit the leader’s office or speak with his administrative staff.

When Khamenei was first chosen 17 years ago to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic, he was a mid-level cleric without a strong political base. He was chosen in part, political analysts in Tehran said, because he was not seen as a threat to other powerful clerics or politicians. In fact, for his first six years as leader, it was Rafsanjani, then the president, who ran the state, according to people who worked with both men at the time.

Over time, Khamenei created a system that many political analysts and Western diplomats here say is less a theocracy and more an autocracy, with loyalty to the leader the prerequisite for influence.

Khamenei has strong ties to the Basiji militia and the Revolutionary Guards and has won the allegiance of some powerful seminaries in the religious center of Qom by giving them state funds. He also has strong allies in the Guardian Council, which oversees all government decisions, and the Assembly of Experts, which technically exercises oversight of the leader.

While Iran’s elected officials are subjected to public scrutiny and critical analysis, the supreme leader is not. He is more than a head of state. He is a symbol of two core elements of the Islamic Republic’s official identity: revolution and religion. As a result, assessing the leader is a red line in Iran, one few are willing to cross, at least publicly.

The Constitution gives the supreme leader near total control of the state, although officials like to emphasize that he is selected by the Experts Assembly, which is elected by the public. The leader appoints all military and security commanders. He has the power to declare war. He must confirm the election of the president. He appoints the head of the judiciary, more than half the members of the Guardian Council, and the head of state television.

Still, Iran is not a country ruled by decree. There are multiple power centers and competing agendas that require that major decisions be made after consultation and compromise. And there are people who disagree with Khamenei, though most have seen their power diluted, according to people with first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the system.

Khamenei has abided by a central rule of Iranian politics: “Anyone who gets power, consolidates power and pushes aside allies, too,” said the senior cleric who has a long personal history with the leader and did not want to be identified out of fear of offending him.

With that power, he has defined Iran’s agenda. Khamenei supports Iran’s absolute right to pursue nuclear energy, rails against the failure of liberal democracy, and often talks about the “usurper Zionist regime,” just as Ahmadinejad does.

He said at a conference in Tehran in April: “The bitter and venomous taste of Western liberal democracy, which the United States has hypocritically been trying to portray through its propaganda as a healing remedy, has hurt the body and soul of the Islamic Ummah and burned the hearts of Muslims.

“Iraq and Afghanistan and Lebanon, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and other secret dungeons and, above all, the cities in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have shown to our nations the real meaning of ‘liberty’ and ‘Western human rights,’ the most shameless and impudent propagator of which is the American regime.”

Over time, Khamenei appears to have gravitated closer to the fundamentalists.

He has always held conservative values. In a 1996 interview with a hard-line journal, Sobh, for example, he wrote that children should not be allowed to play music. “Teaching music is not in accordance with the Islamic establishment, and teaching music to schoolchildren brings corruption,” he said.

In early power struggles over the scope of the supreme leader’s authority, however, he spoke out in support of limits. And in the early years of Khatami’s reformist rule, he tolerated some popular changes relaxing social restrictions and allowing more freedom of the press.

But he appears to have worked steadily to undermine Khatami, and those efforts accelerated after he sensed that the reform movement was challenging his authority.

One former high-ranking reformer who remains friendly with Khamenei said that the biggest mistake the reformers made was in challenging the power of the supreme leader. Khatami ultimately proved loyal to the system and the ayatollah. But others within the reform movement were pushing hard for more fundamental changes, questioning the rule of clerics in Iran.

The former official, who still plays an active role in politics and said he met regularly with Khamenei, said that many of his decisions were based on political calculations aimed at preserving his power.

“He reacted to efforts by radicals among the reformers to weaken him,” the former official said.

When Khomeini died in 1989, Khamenei was finishing his second term as president, a relatively weak job at the time because there also was a prime minister. The country’s leaders had talked about creating a council to replace Khomeini. The logic was twofold: There was a sense that no one could command the same authority and respect as Khomeini, and other officials did not want to cede any of their power to a new leader, people familiar with the decision process said.

Rafsanjani, then the speaker of Parliament, was then one of Iran’s most powerful men. He pressed for a new supreme leader, saying it was essential to have one person in that post, and he pushed through the selection of Khamenei.

“Rafsanjani definitely played a role in making him leader,” said Mahmoud Vaezi, a former deputy foreign minister, who is on the Expediency Council, which arbitrates disputes between the elected and appointed arms of government.

But in time, the supreme leader figured out how to become really a supreme leader. He changed his dress, from elegant clerical robes to the more conservative, simple and traditional religious garb hidden beneath a flowing black cape. He also draped a kaffiyeh around his neck, the checkered scarf that is a symbol of resistance.

“Nobody should forget that as the leader, he is a revolutionary and a religious man,'” said Mehdi Karoubi, a cleric and former speaker of Parliament, who, like Khamenei was among the early followers of Khomeini. “In his public comments he has to reflect those realities.”

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