As elections loom, Khamenei manoeuvres in Iran’s political minefield
London - Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “request” to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to run in next May’s presidential election illustrates his dislike of unpredictability. In 27 years as leader, Khamenei has sought to build consensus among the political class, seeing elections as a means to demonstrate public confidence in the Islamic Republic.
However, even managed elections have proved to be unpredictable and competition between the country’s political factions can be intense.
Another former president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami who held office from 1997-2005, provoked a backlash from “principlist” parliamentary deputies, conservative clerics and the security establishment when he sought to relax censorship and introduce wider social freedoms.
Khamenei saw little choice but to back a crackdown on students impatient with the speed of Khatami’s reforms and, after the reformist president was re-elected in 2001, the leader stood by as the watchdog Guardian Council barred many reformist candidates, including sitting deputies, from the 2004 parliamentary elections. Henceforth the council’s role was widely seen as partisan.
The 2005 presidential election appeared to go well for Khamenei. He intervened to allow two reformists to run, so demonstrating the validity of the election, while the Ahmadinejad’s victory showed a principlist candidate could triumph by extolling the egalitarian values of the 1979 revolution. But Ahmadinejad’s abrasive, impulsive nature created problems.
His religious populism — mobilising support through mosques, religious singers and appeals to the Twelfth, or “Hidden”, Imam whom Shias believe will one day emerge from occultation — alienated senior clerics, who were further alarmed by moves such as the president’s call in 2006 for women to attend soccer matches, regarded by many clerics as forbidden.
Ahmadinejad’s economic populism — subsidised loans for housing or marriage, infrastructure projects pledged on the president’s trips around Iran’s provinces — encouraged fiscal imbalance and left a banking sector with a large level of debt and non-performing loans.
Ahmadinejad’s international assertiveness — extolling the Iranian nuclear programme and questioning the existence of the Jewish holocaust — was initially popular across much of the Arab and Muslim worlds but in time alienated Arab and Western leaders.
Tough energy and financial sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union in 2012 raised the cost of the nuclear programme.
Ahmadinejad had poor relations with parliament and the judiciary but his cardinal error was questioning the leader’s authority. After Khamenei backed the president in the 2009 election, when street protesters challenged the validity of Ahmadinejad’s victory in a surge of dissent, the leader was repaid by Ahmadinejad questioning his authority.
In the most vivid instance, Ahmadinejad in 2011 failed to show up for work for 11 days after Khamenei insisted he should replace the Intelligence minister. The president’s conservative critics spoke of a “deviant current”.
As the 2013 election approached it was clear that Ahmadinejad, constitutionally ineligible for a third consecutive term, was grooming a successor in Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, his first vice-president and relative by marriage.
Could he pressure the Guardian Council to let Mashaei run? It seemed Ahmadinejad thought he might by threatening to reveal “files” on leading Iranians (he gave a taste to parliament by playing a recording of Fazel Larijani, brother of parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, apparently trying to buy a state-owned factory at a bargain price).
The threat did not work. The 12-member Guardian Council, six of whom are appointed by Khamenei, barred Mashaei. An eventual field of six candidates was topped by Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who beat several principlists and won a popular mandate to deliver the landmark nuclear agreement with US-led global powers in July 2015.
While the deal could not have been signed without Khamenei’s support, a deal involving the “Great Satan” was too much for many principlists, who would dearly love to remove Rohani come May.
Over the past year, Ahmadinejad has re-emerged in the public eye, touring the country as conservative websites and social media discussed the possibility he might stand again.
A poll taken in June by Canada-based IranPoll put his popularity rating just 8 percentage points behind Rohani, compared to 27 points back in May 2015. Disquiet with Rohani appeared to relate to 74% of Iranians complaining there had been no improvement in the economy as a result of the nuclear agreement.
Khamenei’s response was restrained but decisive. The official IRNA news agency reported a meeting at which the leader “requested” Ahmadinejad not to run, prompting the former president to write to Khamenei saying he had “no plans to take part in the elections next year” and that he would be proud to “continue as a small soldier of the revolution and servant of the people”.
No doubt Khamenei would like Ahmadinejad confined to such a role. Principlists might instead support a presidential candidate like Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander and a key strategist who has organised resistance to the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria and furthered Iran’s expansionist ambitions.
With either Soleimani, highly popular but a regime stalwart, or a re-elected Rohani, Khamenei would have a president less likely than either of his predecessors to provoke instability or challenge the leader’s authority.