Although he does not wear a crown (his black turban is as indistinguishable as the next cleric’s), Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has increasingly become regarded as a potentate in the tradition of Middle Eastern autocrats. As the renowned Iranian journalist and dissident, Akbar Ganji, has written of “Sultan Khamenei”’, “[he] has used his broad mandate to exercise control not only over all three branches of government but also over economic, religious, and cultural affairs, sometimes directly and sometimes through various councils or through the Revolutionary Guards. Such absolute sovereignty allows the supreme leader to arbitrarily intervene in the lives of his citizens.” The absolute powers granted to the Supreme Leader by Article 57 of the Iranian Constitution over the legislative, executive, and judicial branches have provided Khamanei with the legal cover for many of his actions.
However, wielding this immense, unchecked power while appearing as a modest, ascetic leader (a hallmark of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) is not easy, especially for a man once renowned for being a spiteful political operative. While Iran’s political landscape has become more heterogeneous over the last twenty years, Khamenei has grown more obstinate and vengeful of perceived and actual opponents. As the recent power struggle between Khamanei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has demonstrated, this approach has left Khamanei holding the short-end of the political power stick.
The Story of Khamanei’s Rise
During much of his rule, Khamenei succeeded in manipulating one political faction or another to undermine his opponents. Through seemingly endless sham prosecutions, imprisonments, political assassinations, and other harassments, conservative and radical supporters of the regime were enlisted (nourished would be a more accurate term) time and again in the latter 1990s to push back against the ever-increasing demands of reformists. When the twelve-member Guardian Council – half of whose members are directly appointed by the supreme leader – repeatedly rejected reformist candidates standing for legislative and presidential elections, Khamenei feigned impartiality and instead chastised reformists for undermining national security and unity.
As many official and unofficial organs of the government – such as the Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), various bonyads (religious foundations), the Guardian Council, and the Judiciary – came increasingly to be viewed as proxies of Khamenei’s office, many Iranians began to legitimately doubt that the country’s political system could be reformed through the existing constitutional framework.
With the political and economic levers of power controlled by a small minority, many Iranians became disillusioned with the country’s political system. This lack of confidence was most evident during the country’s 2005 presidential election. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform and discouraged by the reformists’ lack of political backbone, many Iranians stayed away from the polls in what seemed like a non-contest between Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and head of the Expediency Council (charged with overseeing the conduct of the supreme leader), and Ahmadinejad, the then-mayor of Tehran who was immensely popular in the capital but otherwise unknown in the country. Ahmadinejad, a former member of the IRGC, managed to successfully exploit the power vacuum created by the general political apathy amongst Iranians to defeat Rafsanjani, who had for many years become synonymous with avarice and graft.
Ahmadinejad & the IRGC
Ahmadinejad’s victory and rise to national prominence marked the beginning of a new and more assertive role for both Khamenei and the IRGC. For their part, members of the IRGC were more than eager to assume control of the government and to exact revenge from their pragmatist and reformist rivals by purging the ministries, councils and universities of their influence. Ahmadinejad and his supporters rolled back many of the reform era laws and domestic programs, engaged in a systematic crackdown against journalists, writers, artists and intellectuals, and, in response to American military presence on Iran’s eastern and western borders, took a decidedly more bellicose foreign policy posture. For his part, Khamenei was more than happy to allow Ahmadinejad and the IRGC to further weaken an old rival (Rafsanjani) and to all but eliminate the reform movement.
The cumulative impact of these developments fundamentally altered the Iranian political landscape, to say the least. Among the most significant consequences has been the political realignment within the clerical elite, pitting a number of influential religious leaders against Khamanei. For example, while Khamenei came out strongly in support of Ahmadinejad’s domestic and international agenda, other conservative and moderate senior clerics denounced the “militarization” of Iranian politics and warned against the eventual “adulteration” of Islam and the ideals of the revolution by entrenched interest groups. Khamenei’s partisan support of Ahmadinejad’s government and his persistent defense of the legitimacy of the 2009 presidential vote prompted key senior clerics, such as the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri and Yousef Sanei, to issue damning statements questioning the authority and legitimacy of the office of Supreme Leader under Khamenei and the IRGC.
Ahmadinejad v. Khamanei
It is in this context that the recent skirmishes between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei must be understood. The public scuffles over Ahmadinejad’s dismissal of the Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, followed by his prompt reinstatement by Khamenei have inadvertently exposed (perhaps serendipitously for the reformists) the degree to which other branches of government have been consumed by the Supreme Leader’s absolute power. As a result of this particular incident, Khamanei loyalists publicly denounced Ahmadinejad in speeches and sermons across the country, while security forces remanded a number of his top aides and officials on charges of “sorcery and consorting with genies.” The message was crystal clear: in the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader reigns “Supreme,” while all other government officials are expendable. It was no accident then that later, in a televised address at the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, Khamenei reiterated his constitutional prerogative “to intervene and correct official decisions when they deviate from the ideals of the Revolution and are not in the interest of the public.”
Of course, there is a great deal more at stake in the rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejed than mere constitutional wrangling. Iran’s political landscape today is characterized by multiple centers of power, which sometimes overlap but are more often in direct conflict with one another. Two nodes of this power struggle, Ahmadinejad’s supporters and the old oligarchic order of petrochemical and commercial interests, successfully joined forces and defeated the pragmatists and reformists. With these two groups eliminated, Ahmadinejad’s ever-expanding network of backers set their sights on destroying the old commercial oligarchs and on consolidating their control over the state.
In practice, these circumstances have undermined Khamanei’s once absolute power. Although he may be increasingly asserting his constitutional prerogatives, Khamenei is no longer in command of his once-useful proxies. Neither loved nor particularly respected by the clerical establishment, and no longer feared by his political opponents, Khamanei has become an anachronism to once ardent supporters of the Islamic Republic. While for now he remains protected by an ever-shriveling rank of IRGC and security thugs, there is no mistaking the ironic (and tragic) fact that much like the “Shah of Shahs” before him Khamanei has become little more than a monument to moral corruption and dictatorship.
 Indeed, for many senior clerics in the holy city of Qom – the theological seat of Shi’a Islam – the IRGC’s recent interference in the country’s elections has set the country on a dangerous course.