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Khamenei Strikes Back

Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 13, 2012

    Conservative forces loyal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, emerged victorious in the March 2012 elections to the Majlis (Parliament). Ahmadinejad’s hard line faction suffered a big defeat even in Tehran. The election result has not only pushed Ahmadinejad on to the back foot, but there is a possibility that his powers could be curtailed in the coming months. Given the challenge that Ahmadinejad dared to pose to him in recent months, Khamenei may even do away with the post of president by not calling for fresh presidential elections in June 2013. Instead, the Majlis may elect a prime minister from among its 290 members. Khamenei had hinted at such a move last October thus:

    Under the country’s current political system, the president is directly elected by the people, which is a good and effective method. However, if, perhaps in the distant future, it is felt that it would be better if officials of the administrative branch be chosen in accordance with the parliamentary system, there will be no problem if changes are made in the current mechanism. 1

    But the fact remains that the abolition of the post of president requires a constitutional amendment as per Article 177 of the Iranian Constitution. For this purpose, the Supreme Leader has to issue a decree to the President after consultations with the State Expediency Council stipulating the amendments or additions required to be made by the Council for Revision of the Constitution. The Council consists of:

    1. Members of the Guardian Council.
    2. Heads of the three branches of the government.
    3. Permanent members of the Nation's Exigency Council.
    4. Five members from among the Assembly of Experts.
    5. Ten representatives selected by the Leader.
    6. Three representatives from the Council of Ministers.
    7. Three representatives from the judiciary.
    8. Ten representatives from among the members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly.
    9. Three representatives from among university professors.

    The procedure, the method of selection of candidates to the Council and their qualifications are all governed by law. The Council’s decision must then be confirmed and signed by the Supreme Leader, after which it has to be approved by an absolute majority of voters participating in a national referendum. Given that the Supreme Leader has a majority in all these institutions and given that he continues to enjoy the popular support, he can indeed ensure that the constitution is amended according to his wishes.

    Whether the presidency is abolished or not, the question that begs an answer is why is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei contemplating such a course of action. The answer lies in the challenge posed to his supreme authority first by the reformers as part of the Green Movement in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential elections and subsequently by the hardliners led by President Ahmadinejad. The challenge to the authority of the 32-year old Islamic Republic has hardly ever been greater than in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election of June 2009. For the first time, protesters and supporters of the Green Movement called for the downfall of the Supreme Leader. Before 2009, Khamenei had been largely spared from public criticism by the opposition activists. But the Green Movement led to a change in this regard. Khamenei and his loyalists eventually silenced the demands of the demonstrators with the help of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which was made easier by the fact that the demonstrators were loosely organised. Continuing with the policy of sidelining the reformists, the recent Majlis elections saw most reformist candidates being barred from contesting by the Guardian Council (which vets all candidates). Consequently, reformists were virtually absent from the electoral scene, which is also a testimony to the severe crackdown that has been unleashed upon them since the mass protests in 2009.

    At the same time, Khamenei has also come to face a growing challenge from the hardliners led by Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad’s supporters including his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, even went to the extent of questioning the legitimacy of the very principle of the velayat-e-faqih as well as the overarching role and influence of the clerics in Iranian politics. In addition, Ahmadinejad challenged the authority of the Supreme Leader by attempting to remove the intelligence minister Heider Moslehi who is a Khamenei loyalist. In the face of this challenge, conservatives united to curtail the power of the hardliners. As pointed out above, most reformist candidates were barred from or were absent in the Majlis elections, which essentially meant that it became a contest between the conservative coalition of Khamenei supporters and Ahmadinejad’s hard line followers. The allies of the Supreme Leader worked very hard to unite conservatives into a single group, the United Principlist Front (UPF), and used their dominant position to suppress all opposition to the Supreme Leader’s absolute authority. This group constitutes the unofficial representatives of Khamenei and is fully committed to the system of governance known as velayat-e-faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent). In theory, the principlist group is led by Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, the chairman of the Assembly of Experts—a council which has the power to elect the Supreme Leader. The principlists believed that if Ahmadinejad gained a majority in the Majlis, he will pose an even stronger challenge to Khamenei. Their victory in the March elections means that they have achieved their objective and successfully sidelined Ahmadinejad’s supporters.

    Notwithstanding the affirmation of regime legitimacy, the election result is an indicator of Ahmadinejad’s imminent political downfall given that he had dared to challenge the Supreme Leader’s authority to direct key government affairs such as foreign policy and intelligence. Ahmadinejad—at one time considered an ideal son of Iran’s theocracy—has been left politically weakened and he became the first president to be questioned by the Majlis on March 14. The questions directed at him included: the administration’s failure, the failure to achieve economic growth, poor implementation of the subsidy reform plan, the president’s alleged resistance in accepting the Supreme Leader’s decree to reinstate the intelligence minister, the dismissal of the former foreign minister while he was on a diplomatic mission, and the president’s support for the promotion of the ‘deviant’ Iranian school of thought instead of the Islamic school of thought.

    The biggest gainer in this election is the Supreme Leader. Khamenei has pointed out that after the commotion that was created about the presidential election in 2009 and which had dented his authority, “some had predicted that people have lost their confidence in the Islamic system but this election was a strong and clear-cut response to that wrong conclusion.” Khamenei may view this election as a means to restore his authority and reassure his followers that he is still firmly in control and will continue to safeguard the ideology of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei has also steadily signalled that he will no longer tolerate any opposition to the revolutionary ideology, by sidelining the deviant current, sedition (fetneh), and supporters of the Green Movement. Khamenei has also been able to prove that Iran is socially and politically united, and that velayat-e-faqih is still a significant and legitimate institution.