Of all the sociopolitical oddities the Islamic Republic of Iran has introduced to the world, the practice of “unfree, unfair and unpredictable” election begs for an explanation. The country’s constitution requires the president and members of parliament to be elected by popular votes, but it sets a vetting process to quality those who can run and makes the executive and the legislative branches of government subservient to the Supreme Leader.
During the first decade of the revolutionary regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had a deified status and public officials did not dare to contradict or challenge him. In 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as the Supreme Leader but lacked the charisma, the popular support or the religious authority to inherit the uncontested leadership of Khomeini.
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the first president after Khomeini’s death had played a central role in choosing Khamenei as the new Supreme Leader and his political prominence in the regime was on par with him. He chose, against Khamenei’s preference, to run the executive branch in an independent and relatively pragmatic manner. To counter Rafsanjani, Khamenei focused on the Revolutionary Guards and supported the organization’s expansionist ambition, not only militarily but also in the economic, intelligence, security and judicial affairs of the state.
The reformist Mohammad Khatami whose advocacy of a more tolerant society and less confrontational foreign policy won him 70 percent of the popular vote succeeded Rafsanjani. Khamenei used the coercive power of the Revolutionary Guards to defeat the reformist project. In the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections, Khamenei used the resources of the Revolutionary Guards to engineer the elections in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He seemed to believe that Ahmadinejad, a man of humble background, would follow his instructions without hesitation. He could not be more wrong. Initially, Ahmadinejad satisfied the Supreme Leader in his anti-reformist behavior at home and anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric abroad, even though he alienated many in the theocracy’s royalist camp.
But in his second term Ahmadinejad became relentlessly assertive and began to level serious accusations of corruption and favoritism against Khamenei’s appointees in the judicial and intelligence Ministries. Moreover, his threatening and boasting rhetoric before the U. N. General Assembly turned him into a media phenomenon and a subject of international curiosity in a manner that did not particularly please the Supreme Leader. It is an irony that the narcissistic Ahmadinejad became more of a problem for the Supreme Leader than either pragmatic Rafsanjani or reformist Khatami.
Absence of a maximum leader has led to a mushrooming of factionalism and cutthroat competition for power and perquisites among regime loyalists. To be sure, Khamenei is the most powerful man in Iran, but rival members of the political elite now do and say things to each other that defy and discredit him. He has repeatedly appealed to public officials to restrain themselves. He has gone so far as declaring that those who create divisions within the regime “betray the country,” but even such a threat does not seem to contain the growing infighting among those who claim to be his loyal servants.
In a face-to-face quarrel in an open session of the parliament, President Ahmadinejad and parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, accused each other of running a ‘mafia’ like scheme. This exchange was provoked by Ahmadinejad’s decision to play a secretly taped video clip of conversation in which Mr. Larijani’s younger brother, Fazel, appeared to discuss the purchase of a state company under favorable terms. Ahmadinejad keeps threatening to expose “scandalous files” on his opponents who happened to be close Khamenei associates.
Parliament deputy Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, whose daughter is married to Ayatollah Khamenei’s son, has complained that Ahamdinejad’s words and deeds “are driving us crazy.” After the invasion of the British Embassy in Tehran in November 2011, Ahmadinejad condemned the ring leaders of the attack as “certain elements with political and economic motives“ who had purchased large amount of gold and hard currency in the expectation that their adventurism will lead to imposition of more economic sanctions on the country and result in an “increase in the price of gold and rate of exchange. Regrettably, the names of those involved in the play are yet to be revealed.” Khamenei and his associates did not respond to this astonishing charge because they had already praised the invaders.
Struggle for power and perquisites, as well as conflicts between reformist/pragmatic and radical elements have led to repeated purges of the regime’s political elite. The purged officials are invariably accused of collaborating with or being deceived by the United States and Israel. Even former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami are not immune from such charges. The state-owned daily Kayhan refers to these men as representatives of the “American-Israeli sedition of 2009,” a reference to the protests that followed the 2009 rigged reelection of Ahmadijejad.
The ideological rhetoric of Khamenei has not changed since 1979, while the political mindset and sensibility of most Iranians have gone through sea change. Even the eight presidential candidates who are presumed to be hardcore Islamists do not seem to take the Supreme Leader’s hyperbole seriously. One of them, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minster and current foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader, accused his rival Said Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, of failing to be realistic or effective in negotiating the country’s nuclear dispute. Jalili responded by informing him that he has followed the instructions of the Supreme Leader in the negotiations.
In the current presidential campaign, the eight qualified candidates are presumed to be submissive to Khamenei. Yet, it is very unlikely that a submissive president is going to help Khamenei realize his dream of becoming Iran’s maximum leader. For the age of maximum leader seems to be over. The “Arab Spring” led to the demise of four dictators, but it did not produce a single maximum leader, an unprecedented development in the history of the region.
All presidential candidates promise to solve Iran’s economic problems and improve its foreign relations. What they fail to note, however, is that peaceful resolution of Iran’s nuclear dispute is the precondition for pursuing such goals. The election result will have no impact on Iran’s nuclear dispute, for the preference of the president plays no significant role in the negotiations. President Ahmadinejad has just announced that he has never had anything to do with Iran’s nuclear negotiation. The reality is that if there is going to be a settlement of the nuclear issue, Ayatollah Khamenei and Revolutionary Guards commanders will have to be willing to make a deal with the United States.
At the present time, it is hard to be optimistic about such a prospect. For animosity toward the United States or the West, more in regard to sociocultural matters than in conventional anti-hegemonic sense, has become part of the regime’s identity. It is not easy for the regime to become flexible in its dealing with Washington. For Khamenei’s positions and decisions over the past 24 years reveal unbending resentment toward the idea of compromise. The same conclusion is evident in the words and deeds of the Revolutionary Guards commanders. Yet, these men want to remain in power and they know how to change their mind if it is necessary for the survival of their regime.