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A Lesson in Persian Politeness: Why Khamenei's Leadership Didn't End in 1999

January 13, 2022
Faramarz Davar
5 min read
A Lesson in Persian Politeness: Why Khamenei's Leadership Didn't End in 1999

Recently, a video resurfaced and was shared by the BBC depicting former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani giving a speech. The subject is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the date of the recording unknown.

In the video, Rafsanjani tells an assembled group of clerics that Khamenei had once told him he found leadership “suffocating”.  In fact, he says, Khamenei had told him: “I wish you had set a time limit on leadership, so people didn’t feel suffocated."

In 1979, a hastily-created Assembly for the Final Review of the Constitution had convened to condense and ratify the draft Constitution of the Islamic Republic. The assembly worked under the Council of the Islamic Revolution, a group hand-picked by Ruhollah Khomeini to manage the transition before his return to Iran, of which Rafsanjani was a pivotal member.

Ten years later in 1989 as president-elect, Rafsanjani would have a decisive hand in amendments to the Constitution. It was on his initiative that the condition for future Supreme Leaders to be “sources of emulation” was removed, paving the way for Ali Khamenei to take up the role. But the so-called Assembly for Revising the Constitution had also proposed a maximum term of office to prevent lifelong leadership by one person. It was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who at that time held different views to those he espoused in later life, who intervened in the process to hand the reins of power to Khamenei indefinitely.

Was Khamenei Supposed to be a Time-Limited Leader?

The 1989 Assembly had been convened by order of Ruhollah Khomeini in the last weeks of his life. Each of the proposed revisions to the Constitution were decided by a majority vote. By the time they came to the referendum on new provisions for the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei had already begun his interim leadership.

In its draft plan, the 25-member Assembly had taken the historic step of abolishing lifelong leadership and proposing a 10-year term for the Supreme Leader. Mehdi Karroubi, the then-speaker of the Iranian parliament and another appointee reviewing the Constitution, would later recall that not just Rafsanjani but other high-ranking clerics – mostly members of the ultraconservative Qom Seminary Lecturers Association – were against the imposition of a time limit on Supreme Leadership. The Qom Seminary Lecturers Association was at that time led by two powerful individuals: Ali Meshkini, chairman of the Assembly of Experts, and Mohammad Yazdi, the first head of the judiciary under Khamenei.

In a letter published a full 30 years after these critical meetings were held, Mehdi Karroubi said of Rafsanjani’s role in the talks: “We [proponents of the time limit] opposed the repeal of the resolution, and said the issue had already been discussed and decided on. But he [Rafsanjani] said ‘Now we will vote to remove this restriction’.

“Thus, when the late Hashemi voted to repeal the resolution, and then after a superficial and rushed count claimed the abolition of the 10-year limit on the leadership had been voted for, I went to him to protest, asking for another vote. I told him that often in parliament, when there is doubt about the in-person voting (standing up or sitting down), we vote again, and with just 25 people here, why wouldn’t you want to vote again to alleviate any suspicion?”

Rafsanjani, Karroubi wrote, "jokingly asked me to return to my seat". With that dismissal, the matter was decided: the office of the Supreme Leader became a lifetime one.

Could Khamenei not Have Intervened?

In the leaked video, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani quoted Ali Khamenei as being dissatisfied with his never-ending role, and likening it to "suffocation". But by order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ali Khamenei was a member of the Assembly for Revising the Constitution and could have remonstrated with the clerics and Rafsanjani about it at the time.

Not only this, but Khamenei would have been able to force through any amendments he wanted through his own connections as departing president and interim Supreme Leader. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani himself was at that time a staunch supporter of Khamenei and a like-minded member of Iran’s ruling elite. It is hard to imagine that such an amendment would have been blocked by Rafsanjani if Khamenei had backed it at the time.

As soon as he came to power, Ayatollah Khamenei had also temporarily moved the Assembly of Experts, of which Rafsanjani was a member, to bring it under the purview of the Office of the Supreme Leader. The internal regulations were changed, giving Khamenei higher influence over its decisions.

Both through his personal membership of the board reviewing the Constitution and sway over the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei would almost certainly have had the deciding vote in whether or not the office of Supreme Leader was time-limited.

Finally, and crucially, if Khamenei truly found his position “suffocating” he could have resigned at any point in the intervening 33 years. Rafsanjani’s comments therefore signal one of two things: either that Khamenei’s comments were an exercise in the Persian social phenomenon of ta’arof, best described as politeness and often-feigned modesty, or that in his remarks, Rafsanjani was falsely positioning himself as responsible in a bid to preserve Khamenei’s reputation.

Related coverage:

Khamenei and Rafsanjani: A Friendship That Turned Sour

The Overnight Ayatollah: Khamenei's Fight to Become a Spiritual Leader

Why is Khamenei Still Trying to Prove his Legitimacy as Leader?

Khamenei Begrudges His Critics Even After Their Death

Khamenei Once Thought the Supreme Leader Needed 'Supervising'. What Happened?

Khamenei’s War on Democracy and Civil Society



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