As the results of Iran’s parliamentary election on Friday unfold, there will be much speculation about its impact on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his tumultuous tenure. However, the underlying story has less to do with Ahmadinejad than with the triumph of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s long-term strategy of ensuring a conservative consolidation of power. Khamenei stands unchallenged at the top of the Islamic Republic, with a verdict that has only reinforced his claims of political hegemony.
It is customary to suggest that Khamenei has followed the lead of his illustrious predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in balancing Iran’s various factions. The idea does have merit, as the participation of all political groups in the critical decision-making process would distribute the burden of any failed initiative on all the relevant national parties. To be sure, Khomeini was inclusive and was open to suggestions and dissent from all segments of the ruling elite.
The only problem with this narrative is that it does not adequately represent how Khamenei has comported himself. During the past two decades, the ayatollah has methodically undermined all contenders to his rule and all challengers to his preferred conservative allies.
By temperament and design, Khamenei has always been cautious and conservative, uneasy about radical solutions and self-defeating crusades. The Supreme Leader is one of the few Iranians that perceive the Islamic Republic as an attractive polity with no real need for reform or rejuvenation. Upon assumption of power in 1989, he moved to align himself with the reactionary elements in their quest to undermine President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s attempt to usher in a more pragmatic approach to statecraft.
In a pattern that would often repeat itself, the hard-liners employed their institutional power to thwart reform measures. Under the auspices of Khamenei, the hard-liners systematically undermined Rafsanjani’s initiatives to liberalize the economy and reach out to the international community.
It is no secret that Khamenei preferred the reliably reactionary Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri for the presidency in 1997. The election of Nateq-Nuri would have completed the conservatives’ institutional dominance, as all the relevant national organs would be manned by Khamenei loyalists. Even Iran’s circumscribed political process, however, can produce surprising results, as the Iranian masses chose to empower the most serious challenge to Khamenei—Muhammad Khatami and the reform movement.
Alas, the reform interlude was not to last long. With the Supreme Leader’s blessing, the conservatives cynically deployed the judiciary and the security services to close down newspapers and imprison key reform figures on contrived charges, while the Guardian Council systematically voided parliamentary legislation.
By the 2005 presidential election, Khamenei’s long-term strategy of conservative predominance seemed complete, as Ahmadinejad triumphed over the aged and corrupt Rafsanjani. Although Ahmadinejad’s electoral pledge of social justice has garnered much attention, he also promised to abide by the strictures and fiats of the Supreme Leader. Despite predictable ebbs and flows, the relationship between the two men has remained intimate. To be sure, Ahmadinejad’s incendiary rhetoric and lack of coherent economic planning may disturb the Supreme Leader, but he remains loyal to the president.
Khamenei has not reached the pinnacle of power by remaining complacent about potential challenges. By encouraging younger rivals to Ahmadinejad, such as the former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and Tehran’s mayor, Muhammad Qalibaf, he can maintain his options and keep the president on a short leash. Unlike the old guard—such as Rafsanjani and Khatami—the younger conservatives do not have an independent powerbase or sufficient stature to contest the Supreme Leader’s prerogatives. Under Khamenei’s direction, the Guardian Council has been careful to exclude reformers and pragmatists from serious contention for parliamentary seats, leaving assorted conservatives to battle it out among themselves. The ensuing Parliament is likely to be dominated by politicians who require Khamenei’s approbation for their political viability.
Khamenei’s nearly two-decade strategy of ensuring his political primacy has finally been realized. In a remarkable achievement, he has managed to marginalize the wily Rafsanjani and the still-popular Khatami. The future of Iran belongs to the Supreme Leader and dogmatic younger conservatives who outdo one another for his support and affection. Whatever the composition of the new Parliament, and whoever succeeds the office of the presidency next year, Iran has entered the age when a single mullah dominates all institutions and arbitrates all debates. Iran’s Supreme Leader has never been more supreme.
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