Special Features

Khamenei is Becoming Isolated by the Pandemic

September 8, 2020
Behnam Gholipour
3 min read
Khamenei has not appeared in public since March 2020 and does not venture out further than his own garden
Khamenei has not appeared in public since March 2020 and does not venture out further than his own garden
The total count of meetings, speeches, and public appearances of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic since May has been fewer than 15
The total count of meetings, speeches, and public appearances of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic since May has been fewer than 15

Along with the untold destruction the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked on the lives, property, present, and future of the people of Iran and the world, it has had a surprising effect on the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Since early spring this year, Ali Khamenei has become markedly isolated and in fact, appears to be experiencing his most desolate period of leadership since 1989. He has not appeared in public since March 2020 and does not venture out further than his own garden. He receives very few guests and holds no social gatherings.

The leader, who formerly held several public and private meetings a week with local officials and foreign visitors, has now limited his activities to a scattering of remote broadcasts. On March 22, he made a televised speech to the people of Iran – in which he suggested coronavirus was a US-made biological weapon – and since then, such appearances have become sparser and sparser.

On April 9 Khamenei spoke to mark the occasion Shaban 15 [the birthday of the twelfth Shiite Imam] and on April 25, he held a Koranic gathering online. Then on May 6, he joined a video call with workers at seven manufacturing sites. He has since held one video conference with the National Coronavirus Taskforce and one remote meeting with representatives of student organizations in May.

The total count of meetings, speeches, and public appearances of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic since May has been fewer than 15. Coronavirus has seen his activities greatly diminished. Last week, Khamenei held a special Muharram ceremony for five nights: one of his most important religious duties as Supreme Leader. But in those pictures that have been published, what strikes most is Ali Khamenei’s loneliness.

The pictures were quickly reposted on social media and interpretations of them varied. Supporters of Khamenei even pledged they would not allow “Ali” to be “left alone”.

 

Why is the Supreme Leader so Isolated?

The main reason for Khamenei’s near-total seclusion is the absolute dependence of the Islamic Republic’s system of governance on him as the source of Velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the Islamic jurist, and as Supreme Leader.

Were Khamenei to pass away without a successor, the country would in all likelihood be pitched into chaos and there is a possibility that the regime could be toppled. Khamenei’s vulnerability in the face of coronavirus has thus led the security apparatus to surmise that he should be kept in quarantine for a long time.

It seems likely that Khamenei will be isolated until a vaccine is available. Medical researchers currently expect this to happen next year. In the meantime, Khamenei has lost much of his relationship with his supporters and the system under his control.

The cooling of the relationship between the Islamic ummah, or community, and the religious guardian can pave the way for the latter’s religious delegitimization. The pandemic has weakened the leader-follower relationship because the ordinary concerns of the Iranian people have been so severely overshadowed by coronavirus for six months. If the virus continues to spread in Iran, Khamenei’s private lockdown may well end up continuing indefinitely.

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