Khamenei’s solitary stance portends power struggle
The ruling elites of Iran are increasingly polarised after the largest anti-regime demonstrations in Iran since 2009. While Iranian President Hassan Rohani and the regime’s technocratic elites talk of “legitimate concerns of the people,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) depicts the protests as a foreign conspiracy.
Both pillars of the regime, however, distance themselves from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against whom most of the protesters’ slogans were directed. This indicates preparations for a post-Khamenei struggle for power even while he is alive.
Khamenei, who is 78, was nowhere to be seen as food riots broke out December 28 in his native city of Mashhad. The protests soon spread to the rest of the country, including the holy city of Qom, where demonstrators chanted slogans in favour of the late Reza Shah Pahlavi, anti-clerical founder of the Pahlavi dynasty that ruled Iran until the revolution of 1979. Elsewhere, protesters chanted “death to Khamenei” and publicly tore up posters of Iran’s head of state.
Khamenei remained absent from the political arena, first appearing in public after the protests started on January 2. Addressing the families of Iran-Iraq war victims, Khamenei made no mention of unemployment and poverty.
Even though economic misery had forced the people to take to the streets, Khamenei limited his address to warn the public against foreign enemies. He said ill-wishers were “waiting for a cleavage” to insert themselves in Iran’s domestic affairs. He declared “those with money, policy, weapons and security services are all united to create trouble for the Islamic regime and the Islamic Republic.”
A week later, Khamenei added a slightly different line when receiving a large delegation from Qom, admitting: “One must distinguish between legitimate demands of the public and savage and destructive deeds of others.”
The rest of his address was a repetition of the regime’s propaganda. “The Americans and the Zionists plotted,” he declared, “a filthy rich country in the Persian Gulf-financed it… and the Monafeqin [the opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq organisation] were the lackeys executing the plot inside Iran.”
It would appear Khamenei is more isolated than ever before. Rohani and the technocratic elites openly contradict the supreme leader’s conspiracy theories. On January 2, the very day Khamenei warned against foreign enemies, Rohani acknowledged that the protests were not just about “economic issues (but also)… against corruption and lack of transparency.”
On January 8, Rohani told his cabinet: “The young generation is just saying: ‘I, too, understand and have something to say. You must listen.’ The people, too, tell us they have complaints, to which we must listen and, more importantly, we must act upon it. When the youth constitutes the majority in the country, it means we must act according to the opinion of the majority.”
While the IRGC does not challenge Khamenei’s foreign conspiracy theory, its official statements hardly mention the supreme leader anymore. It’s worth noting that when Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, IRGC chief commander, declared victory over “sedition” on January 3, he mentioned Khamenei just once. It was a fairly long television interview but notably free of the usual flowery praise that IRGC commanders shower on the supreme leader.
Equally remarkable were the IRGC commander’s measured comments about the protesters who chanted “Death to Khamenei” or ripped his posters to pieces in front of cameras. Jafari did not threaten them with punishment.
To add to these developments, footage was recently posted on YouTube of the June 4, 1989, meeting of the Assembly of Experts, the body that appoints or dismisses the supreme leader. Khamenei was elected head of state that day. In the previously unreleased footage, he expressed doubts about being able to step in the shoes of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
It’s not clear if Khamenei was being disingenuous when he said: “One must cry blood for the Islamic society, in which even the possibility of someone like me [becoming leader], is raised… My ruling is not the final word for most of the [clerical] gentlemen, neither from a constitutional point of view nor from the viewpoint of Islamic law.”
Now abandoned by the technocrats and the IRGC and a prisoner of his own conspiracy theories, it is Iran’s supreme leader who may cry blood in the solitude of power.