Honeymoon with Ahmadinejad
The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 2005 presidential election was a turning point in Iran’s political arena.
After becoming president, Ahmadinejad advocated what he called reviving the core values of the Islamic Revolution. He and his confidantes suggested the previous administrations had moved the country away from such values, and so proceeded to carry out a full-scale purge within government institutions to expel the associates and supporters of the two previous presidents, Mohammad Khatami (who served as president from 1997 to 2005) and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (who served as president from1989 to 1997). The new administration also adopted more repressive policies in social and political fields, as well as a more aggressive attitude in foreign policy.
Ayatollah Khamenei fully supported Ahmadinejad throughout his first presidential term. He repeatedly and adamantly admired Ahmadinejad’s uncompromising stance vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic’s domestic and foreign enemies and the way in which he stressed the importance of the ideological values of the Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Khamenei believed that pro-Khatami reformists, and to a lesser extent pro-Rafsanjani pragmatists, had undermined the Islamic Republic’s core values, and therefore, he backed Ahmadinejad’s full-scale combat with the associates of the previous presidents.
The Leader also supported Ahmadinejad’s ruthless confrontation with the international community over Iran’s nuclear program. The president emphasized that Tehran should forcefully continue the enrichment of uranium regardless of the gradual intensification of economic sanctions, insisting that the sanctions could not affect Iran’s economy. Ayatollah Khamenei admired the president’s position, seeing it as a strong “resistance against world arrogant powers.”
The 2009 Protests
The Leader’s support for Ahmadinejad reached its peak during the 2009 presidential election. Before the election, the state institutions under the Leader’s control openly and unlawfully supported Ahmadinejad, and Khamenei himself did not hesitate to praise what he called the president’s exceptional achievements.
The 2009 presidential contest turned out to be the most disputed election in the history of the Islamic Republic. A wide spectrum of Iranian people and politicians strongly believed the election was rigged on an unprecedented scale; hence, massive numbers of protesters took to the streets.
In response to the public uprising, the Leader not only called for a full-fledge security crush on the protesters, but made it clear that the pro-regime politicians had no right to remain silent about the protests and that they must openly take a stand. The Leader’s position became tougher when, in response to the state’s brutal repression, the protesters’ election-related slogans turned anti-Khamenei and anti-regime.
Despite Khamenei’s position, the contested 2009 election resulted in a major rift within the Islamic Republic that was never repaired. In addition to the majority of the reformists and pro-Rafsanjani forces, a number of the conservatives, too, split from the Leader’s confidantes over the 2009 presidential controversy.
Under such circumstances, post-2009 election events gave Ayatollah Khamenei the rather paranoid impression that he had been betrayed by a wide range of Islamic Republic insiders. In Khamenei’s view, when he was facing the greatest anti-regime public demonstrations in the Islamic Republic’s history, which he believed were backed by foreign powers, many Iranian politicians and officials, in the name of moderation or political pragmatism, refrained from defending the Leader. On the other hand, the Leader became closer than ever to the most hardline institutions and forces within the regime, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which had fully backed and obeyed him in the midst of the protest movement.
At the same time, he became even more obsessed about the United States and other western powers that had publicly supported the uprising, concluding that the Islamic Republic’s foreign enemies would never miss any opportunity to overthrow the Iranian regime.
Ahmadinejad’s Unexpected Disobedience
In spite of the heavy price that Ayatollah Khamenei paid to maintain Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, the president’s attitude regarding the Leader gradually changed in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election.
The most significant indication of this change was Ahmadinejad’s defiance of Khamenei over the Ministry of Intelligence. In April 2011, the president decided to sack the then minister of intelligence, but the Leader disapproved of this decision and ordered the minister to continue in his job. In response to the Leader’s action, Ahmadinejad refused to attend his office as well as cabinet meetings for 11 days.
This incident brought about an overall attack by the Leader’s appointees and associates against the president they had just saved from a popular uprising. Ahmadinejad finally pulled back from his challenging position and resumed his presidential activities. But the April 2011 episode marked the beginning of a series of never-ending conflicts between Ahmadinejad and the Leader-controlled government institutions, ranging from the judiciary to the IRGC, over a range of issues.
These conflicts strengthened Ayatollah Khamenei’s long-standing political paranoia, as a Leader who apparently believed he could not trust any president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This perception was rooted in the reality that Ahmadinejad seemed to be the closest president to the Leader’s ideology, but even he ended up by defying Khamenei, and this defiance progressively reached such levels that the president openly criticized the Leader’s appointees for various roles to deal with the country’s problems.
One of the issues of discord between the Leader and the president was the unexpected change in Ahmadinejad’s attitude toward Iran’s nuclear program. Over the course of his first presidential term, Ahmadinejad’s hardline nuclear policy was fully backed by the Leader, but in his second term, the president increasingly showed an interest in reaching an agreement with the West in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions.
In fact, after the US and the European Union’s move to impose unprecedented oil and banking sanctions in 2011 and 2012, the Ahmadinejad administration faced extreme financial difficulties, the level of which it had never experienced or anticipated before. But while the new sanctions forced Ahmadinejad to revise his policies, Ayatollah Khamenei was still not prepared to step down from his previous stance.
In this period, disagreements between the Leader and the president led to Ahmadinejad’s marginalization in the decision-making process regarding the nuclear program, as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator of the time, Saeid Jalili, reported directly to the Supreme Leader.
When the nuclear-related sanctions had literally paralyzed Iran’s economy, the Supreme Leader finally agreed to negotiate secretly with the US over the nuclear issue, and Ahmadinejad was not involved in the talks. These meetings began in 2011, through the mediation of Sultan Qaboos, the king of Oman, who managed to convince Ayatollah Khamenei to grant permission to Iran’s foreign ministry to engage in such negotiations. The Leader’s green light resulted in two rounds of covert meetings between Iranian and American diplomats in Muscat, the capital of Oman, in summer 2012 and winter 2012.
These talks were the first indication of Ayatollah Khamenei’s pragmatic retreat from his supposedly uncompromising stance over the nuclear program. The talks went ahead very slowly and did not lead to an agreement, but they paved the way for substantial nuclear negotiations between Iranian and US diplomats during Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, in which, for the first time after the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, the foreign ministers of both countries were personally present.
In the next installment of this four-part series, we will review the effect of these negotiations on Khamenei’s views, and in particular, his perception of pragmatism in foreign policy.