Is The Supreme Leader Really So Supreme?

by Gary Sick

With the surprising Iranian election over, and the moderate Hassan Rouhani elected by a clear majority, a new narrative is emerging. It asserts that absolutely nothing has changed, that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, let the election proceed for his own devious reasons, and that only he can make decisions about Iran’s strategic policies, regardless of who is president.

This is a facile and self-serving argument. After Friday’s election, which reversed all predictions, those of us who watch Iran closely should ask ourselves whether the supreme leader is as supreme as he pretends.

Despite witticisms about “one man, one vote — and that one man is Khamenei,” I am willing to bet that the leader’s vote very early last Friday morning was not for the winning candidate. After all, Rouhani had argued for changes in how Iran deals with political prisoners and particularly its treatment of the former Green candidates who are languishing in house arrest. Those are Khamenei’s policies.

But it is not only the election. Just look at the record. Over the past 15 years, Iran has pursued a series of quite different negotiating strategies with the West: from a temporary suspension of enrichment under the new president-elect, to an on-again-off-again offer to compromise on 20 percent enrichment that resulted in a formal offer via Turkey and Brazil, then a full court stall and “resistance” strategy under the stewardship of the now-forgettable Saeed Jalili. The one constant during all these episodes was the unquestioned supremacy of one man.

This is the same man who reportedly mobilized Revolutionary Guard support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 to avoid the threat of a new reformist surge. He then presided over the hasty coronation of the same man, under an even more immediate threat of reform, in 2009, proclaiming the results “divine.” He then turned around and began systematically stripping all powers from the recipient of that divine judgment, humiliating him and pondering openly the possibility of doing away entirely with the very office of the presidency. Eventually he came to view his divine choice as part of a “deviant current.”

Khamenei clearly wanted to avoid any turmoil in the 2013 election. He could have told Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani not to register for the election, but apparently he could not bring himself to do it. He then turned around and presided over the public dismissal of one of the most highly credentialed leaders of the revolution as unsuited to run, thereby making himself and the entire system look not only hypocritical but also hapless.

Then, the plan to get conservatives and Khamenei-intimates to consolidate around a single powerful candidate fell apart. Only one withdrew, and all the rest were left scrambling for what turned out to be a shrinking piece of the electoral pie. Instead, the reformists showed much more strategic discipline.

The national media was put to work, trying to take any controversy out of the race. Rouhani’s campaign statement was censored to remove any mention of an endorsement from that radical Rafsanjani. Reports of the surge of interest in Rouhani, which showed up in the excellent iPOS tracking polls, did not make it to the hinterland via the national media. Yet somehow, the word apparently got out to all corners of the realm. That casts some doubt on the blanket control that is supposed to characterize Khamenei and those around him.

Throughout all of this (and there is much more) Western observers persevered in attributing every twist and turn — however unlikely and unforeseeable — to the supremacy of Khamenei. It has become almost a parlor game: if you start with the certainty that everything that happens in Iranian politics and strategy is manipulated by one man, then you are left explaining why he should be behaving so strangely and often apparently contradicting his own best interests, time and again. The explanations get stretched to the point of meaninglessness, like a second-rate conspiracy theory. Our willingness to endow every one of Khamenei’s tergiversations with deep meaning reminds me of Talleyrand’s famous quip after one of his fellow negotiators suddenly died, “I wonder what he meant by that?”

Can we not finally admit that, if the man is truly supreme and exercising the degree of control that has been attributed to him, then he is either remarkably fickle or simply inept? His strategic judgment is deeply flawed, at least that is what the man (and woman) in the streets of Tehran said in so many words to foreign correspondents. They suggested that a lot of the blame for Iran’s present plight was the result of bad judgment and bad management.

The government is broken, and a lot of Iranians seem to know it. Iran is politically complicated, with factions, rivalries and deep disagreements. Reducing this to a one-man show may simplify analysis, but it provides a one-dimensional view of a three-dimensional process.

One of the most fascinating themes in Iranian presidential elections over the years has been the determination of the Iranian electorate to vote — strongly and enthusiastically — for the candidate who appeared to be farthest from the existing status quo. Sometimes the range of choice is quite narrow, but even a relatively unknown candidate (Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and now Rouhani) can be propelled into the presidency by the mere appearance of challenging the nezam (system).

But the supreme leader and the nezam have one enormous trump card. They may be unable to persuade or inspire, but they can reject anything that challenges their own cozy circumstances. They are poor at initiating but powerful in their veto.

That, regrettably, is the supreme reality that Rouhani must now confront.

Photo Credit: Mona Hoobehfekr

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