The coming year will be critical in Iran
Beirut - For Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 2016 will be a strange but pivotal year. February will see the election of the 88 clerics who, as members of Majles-e Khobregan-e Rahbari, or the Assembly of Experts, may during their eight-year term pick Khamenei’s successor as supreme leader, as well as the Iranian parliament.
Inevitably this brings talk of Khamenei’s demise — he is hale and hearty but is 76 and has undergone prostate surgery — and of who will succeed him. Even so, Khamenei’s decisions will remain crucial for state policy, including the succession itself.
In speaking openly about what comes after Khamenei, wily former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani recently raised a lid on discreet discussions. Rafsanjani told the Iranian Labour News Agency that the Khobregan was “examining the options” and had appointed a group to “list the qualified people”.
Rafsanjani well knows from his role in framing the relevant 1989 constitutional amendment how vague the qualifications for Iran’s most important position are.
Passed after Khamenei, a cleric of relatively modest standing, became leader, the 1989 change scrapped the notion of the revolutionary leader, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as a pre-eminent cleric and instead stressed mere fitness to issue religious rulings as well as “political and social perspicacity, prudence, courage, administrative facilities, and adequate capability for leadership”.
Fair enough. While 2016 is unlikely to find a decision as to who best shows those qualities and should replace Khamenei, February’s election will give some sense of opinion — or, put differently, the balance of power — in the Assembly of Experts.
Meanwhile, February’s election for parliament will shape how much support Iranian President Hassan Rohani will receive over foreign and domestic issues before Rohani himself is up for re-election in 2017.
The government’s economic strategy hinges both on exporting more oil and on reforming public finances. The latter depends partly on reducing subsidies of everyday items such as fuel as well as the cash handouts to citizens introduced by the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to cushion a withdrawal of subsidies that has been only partly achieved.
“Cash presents of 45,500 tomans ($12) [to nearly all 80 million Iranians] cost 3,400 billion tomans every month, or over $1.1 billion,” a leading Iranian business journalist told The Arab Weekly. “But I doubt Rohani will cut them any time soon, given recession and continuing inflation.”
Hopes of escaping recession — Rohani spoke in October of possible economic contraction in the fiscal year ending March 2016, after 3% growth in 2014-15 — depend on the lifting early in 2016 of stringent US and EU sanctions that have, since 2012, halved oil exports to 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd).
But revenue from higher volumes will be limited by a weak global market: analysts expect Iran can raise exports by 500,000 bpd — a figure endorsed by Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh — but the price per barrel is heading down towards $30, far from the $120-plus of 2012.
With regional policy, it is hard to see 2016 bringing greater flexibility. Remarks from Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior Khamenei adviser, recently in Syria, about President Bashar Assad being received as “a hero” in Tehran were not, as some Syrian opposition outlets suggested, envisaging exile. Rather Velayati was thinking of a state visit, given Assad is “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s red line because he was elected president by the Syrian people”.
Velayati’s visit shows again that Khamenei’s office is in closer control of Syria policy than the Foreign Ministry. At some point the sacrifice of more Iranians — an estimate in June from a website apparently linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps put deaths at 400 — may be judged more painful than shifting the red line but Khamenei will not make this call early in 2016.
Far more urgent will be deciding whether to overrule the watchdog Guardian Council if, as expected, it bars many would-be candidates from the elections in February.
There are precedents both ways: in 2005 Khamenei instructed the council to reverse its exclusion of two leading reformists from the presidential poll. But more often Khamenei has stood back, as when the council blocked Rafsanjani from the 2013 presidential election on grounds of age.
Surely Khamenei will do nothing if the council excludes supporters of the “green movement” from the parliamentary election. And in the 2006 Khobregan election, he watched the council bar most followers of the fundamentalist Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, though not the cleric himself.
But what does Khamenei do, say, if the council excludes Hassan Khomeini, the 43-year-old grandson of the 1979 revolution’s leader who is respected by many, including former president Mohammad Khatami? Is it dangerous to have Khomeini, or indeed Rohani, rally support in Khobregan for a “moderate” as the next leader?
In this decision alone, Khamenei might influence Iranian politics not just in 2016, but for decades. Far more than most leaders. Khamenei’s role in his own succession will help determine his legacy.