Khamenei’s 30 years of revolution: What legacy?
Hujjat al-Islam — later Ayatollah — Ali Khamenei unexpectedly seized the mantle of political leadership in Iran on June 4, 1989, and has since ruled the country as the “leader of the revolution.”
What have Khamenei’s distinct contributions been to the politics of the regime over the past three decades and what legacy will he likely leave behind?
Before June 1989, Khamenei was never considered a serious candidate for leadership and his rise to power within the ranks of the revolutionary elites of the regime was mostly hidden from the public eye.
Less than a year after the fall of the shah’s regime in February 1979, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader and founder of the regime, suffered an incapacitating heart attack. He remained the official figurehead of the regime — and perhaps a strategic leader — but a secret triumvirate of his confidantes emerged to attend to the state’s day-to-day affairs.
Ahmad Khomeini, his son, functioned as a gatekeeper to the leader of the revolution and, as the father grew frailer towards the end of 1980s, used Ruhollah Khomeini’s seal to issue official decrees to destroy his own political rivals and enemies, such as Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, arguably the most politically talented of Khomeini’s students, emerged not only as a parliamentary speaker but in practice as the regime’s grand vizier. Khamenei, Rafsanjani’s less gifted, but reliable friend, was elected president and tried to rebuild state institutions that were badly damaged over the course of the revolution.
The arrangement probably worked only because Rafsanjani had likely convinced Ahmad Khomeini he could seize leadership after the death of his father. However, when Ruhollah Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, Rafsanjani cheated Ahmad Khomeini by elevating Khamenei to leadership, perhaps hoping he could manipulate him as easily as he had manipulated Ahmad Khomeini and others.
Khamenei had other designs. What he lacked in charisma, he made up for in discipline and by patiently institutionalising the regime. He vastly expanded Khomeini’s “office of the leader” into a huge bureaucracy and appointed thousands of trusted civil servants to work as “representative of the leader,” in effect his ears and eyes, in all the regime’s institutions.
Khamenei also did all he could to make sure Iran stayed in a revolutionary state. He correctly believes that the regime transforming from “revolutionary” to “normalcy” would undermine the very nature of the Islamic Republic and has done his utmost to prevent such normalisation.
As president, Rafsanjani, inspired by China’s Deng Xiaoping, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Indonesia’s Suharto, pursued a policy of economic liberalisation minus democratisation in the 1990s. Khamenei feared opening the economy would bring about public demands for political freedom.
Khamenei extended his support to the regime’s leftists, who attacked Rafsanjani’s economic policies and demanded continued state control of the economy to secure the revolution’s promise of social justice.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s attempts to democratise Iranian politics did not fare any better. Kayhan, Khamenei’s mouthpiece, dubbed Khatami “Ayatollah Gorbachev”: The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika accelerated public demands for political freedoms, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Khatami, Kayhan argued, was committing a similar mistake that could lead to the end of the revolution and collapse of the regime. In response, Khamenei put all his weight behind reactionary forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to stop Khatami’s attempts at political liberalisation.
Khamenei even experimented with a Maoist cultural revolution by bringing to power Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a younger generation of revolutionaries who could rejuvenate the revolution and purge the likes of Rafsanjani and Khatami. Ahmadinejad, however, considered Khamenei to be among those in need of being purged, forcing the revolution leader to once again use the IRGC to get rid of Ahmadinejad and his gang.
Khamenei’s 30-year revolution risked coming to a halt when Iranian President Hassan Rohani, facing the extreme pressure of the Obama administration’s economic sanctions, gave up parts of its nuclear programme and negotiated the Iran nuclear deal.
Here, the revolution received assistance from an unexpected quarter — US President Donald Trump, who withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal, once again forcing the regime towards the path of revolution.
Khamenei’s 30-year revolution came with a cost to Iran and Iranians but increasingly to the clerical elites of the country. His resistance to economic reform left Iran a poorer country and obstacles to political reform made Iranians less free.
Most significantly, his over-reliance on the IRGC is changing the very nature of the regime into a military dictatorship. What a legacy to leave behind.