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Whose Side Is The Supreme Leader On?

  • Charles Recknagel

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been sending mixed signals.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been sending mixed signals.

For six days, Tehran has been brought to standstill each evening as tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of people have marched in protest.

At least seven of them have died, shot by members of Iran's paramilitary militia, the Basij, who have tried to intimidate the protesters off the streets.

One might think that by now Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would have used his office -- the highest in the land -- to resolve the political crisis.

But instead Khamenei has sent mixed signals, hinting at what some speculate is an unprecedented rift within the Islamic republic's leadership that has been exposed by postelection tensions.

Immediately after the official announcement of Ahmadinejad's win, Khamenei made a public statement congratulating the president-elect and calling on all Iranians to back him.

He also met with representatives of all four candidates in the race to urge them to put aside rivalries and work together.

But then, in a surprise response to the continuing street protests, he called for a partial vote recount to resolve the differences.

That intervention fell well short of the opposition's call for a complete rerun of the election. Moreover, it immediately raised a host of questions over the supreme leader's stance in the dispute.

Future Of Iran At Stake

Did he intend to step into the middle of the now gaping divide over the election results?

Or, given that he has often backed Iran's conservatives in showdowns with reformists before, was he simply trying to disarm the opposition before sending them home?

A woman passes in front of a poster of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the streets of Tehran.
It may be too soon to know, and the answer might not be clear even as Khamenei delivers Friday Prayers at Tehran University.

But it is clear that the supreme leader ultimately will have to take a position and that the stakes are nothing less than the future course of the Islamic republic itself.

The reason is that the crisis over the election goes deep into the country's political establishment. It pits ideologically well-defined and cohesive camps against one another and these camps have competing concepts of how the state should be run.

A core disagreement is over the extent to which Iran's theocracy should be immune from the will of the people. It is a question that has vexed the Islamic republic since its founder, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, enshrined the principle of theological leadership in the constitution but also provided for constitutionally mandated presidential elections.

Khomeini, in trying to fuse theocracy with republican values, may have seen this as the best way to regularly renew the public legitimacy of his central governing concept. That concept is the rule of the jurisprudent: the rule of the country by the religious expert most qualified to adjudicate disputes on the basis of Islamic law and philosophy.

Finding The Right Balance

Even in Khomeini's time, members of the revolutionary elite differed over how much theocracy should trump the constitutionally expressed will of the people. With his death in 1989, and his succession by Khamenei -- who is not a grand ayatollah -- the question of finding the right balance became still more delicate.

Reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi (center) addresses tens of thousands of supporters on the streets of Tehran on June 15.
Interestingly, both of the two leading rivals in the current election, the reformist Mir Hossein Musavi and the conservative Ahmadinejad, are laymen committed to Iran's theocratic system. But they, and their showdown in the streets, epitomize the tensions over the role of the constitution and rule of law in the Islamic republic.

Musavi, a former prime minister, is backed by two camps of the establishment that agree that the rule of the jurisprudent should be subordinate to the constitution and the sovereignty of the people.

These camps, best known outside Iran as the one around moderate conservative and technocrat Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the one formerly around Mohammad Khatami, also favor modernizing the economy and opening Iran more to the world to lift its standard of living.

By contrast, Ahmadinejad represents the self-named "principlist" camp that sees rule of the jurisprudent as superior in importance to the constitution and the sovereignty of the people. It includes many senior figures close to the supreme leader and who hold key positions in the clerical bodies that vet laws passed by the parliament -- as well as candidates to public office -- for compliance with the Islamic Revolution’s values.

Conservative Backlash

During Khatami's eight years as president, the supreme leader frequently backed a conservative backlash that stymied efforts at reform. The backlash included closure of reformist newspapers, arbitrary arrests of reformist activists, and closed-door trials, and -- in one telling case -- the ransacking of the offices of a student group whose leader had called for limits on Khamenei's own power and his term in office.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
Since Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, Khatami's public calls for strengthening the rule of law have not been echoed by the new administration. Instead, Ahmadinejad has promised to root out corruption and protect the poor against, among others, the reformists themselves, many of whom he has tried to tar as business profiteers.

That would seem to make the supreme leader and Ahmadinejad natural allies. And in the current crisis, it might seem predetermined whose side Khamenei must take.

But things may not be so simple.

If Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are allies, they are not partners. It is the office of supreme leader, not the presidency, which has ultimate official power in the country.

Factors To Weigh

So if Khamenei feels Ahmadinejad's election win has become so controversial, and created so much unrest, that it risks the stability of the regime, it is possible that Khamenei would support a new election or other ways to end the crisis.

However, in making such a choice, Khamenei has to weigh another factor, too.

That is, the danger of alienating his own strongest support base, whose face is now Ahmadinejad. This base includes the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards -- the ideological armed organizations that were created by Khomeini to protect the Islamic Revolution's core values.

The difficulties for Khamenei are only compounded by the fact that he personally possesses neither the unquestioned supremacy nor the charisma of the revolution's founder to singlehandedly define just what those core values are today.

Instead, it is precisely this uncertainty over values that now hovers like a genie over the streets of Iran. Last week's election released it, and now the crisis is about the identity of the country.
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