Iran's Incredible Shrinking Ayatollah

Ali Khamenei's base of support has been vanishing for decades.

Ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran was found in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, there has always been a fierce power struggle between hard-liners and conservatives, on the one hand, and various pragmatist, reformist and Islamic leftist factions that oppose them, on the other hand. In the 1980s, the struggle was between right-wing Islamists and Islamic leftists like former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his supporters. From the mid-1990s to 2005, a fierce power struggle raged between the hard-liners and the reformists. After the fraudulent presidential election of 2009, the struggle was transformed to one between the democratic Green Movement and the hard-liners. And since President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June 2013, a coalition of reformists and moderate conservatives, led by Rouhani and former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, has taken on the hard-liners.

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader is the ultimate authority of the state, and is supposed to be an impartial arbiter between its various organs. That was more or less the case as long as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the supreme leader. Although the leftist clerics, most of them his former students, were close to him, and even though he was a firm supporter of Mousavi in the 1980s, he always remained above the fray and created a balance between the two main factions. His charismatic personality, unquestionable authority and religious credentials—he was a grand ayatollah for decades—enabled him to act as a more or less impartial arbiter.

That changed when Khomeini passed away in June 1989, and was succeeded by the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. When Khamenei came to power, he had no social base of support of his own. He was not an ayatollah either, but a mid-rank cleric. At the time of the revolution, Khamenei was not even in Khomeini’s inner circle. It was Rafsanjani who brought him into the inner circle, and it was Rouhani who arranged for him to get his first major post in the provisional revolutionary government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan as deputy defense minister. Khamenei also owes his rise as supreme leader to Rafsanjani and Khomeini’s late son, Ahmad. The two men maneuvered to get Khamenei elected by the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that appoints the supreme leader.

Despite his reputation in the 1980s for being a relatively progressive cleric, Khamenei has always been a conservative. In fact, he resisted appointing Mousavi as prime minister when he was reelected as president in 1985. Only Khomeini’s insistence that Mousavi should be reappointed, and his implicit threat to remove Khamenei from the presidency, forced him to reappoint Mousavi. Thus, after he was appointed supreme leader in 1989, he began consolidating his power and creating a base of support for himself among the security, intelligence and military forces, and their allies among the conservatives.

From 1989 to 1997, during the presidency of Rafsanjani—Khamenei’s friend for over five decades and his patron in the 1980s—the power struggle between the hard-liners and their new supreme leader on the one hand, and the pragmatic faction led by Rafsanjani on the other, remained more or less behind-the-scenes. But after the Islamic leftists of the 1980s remade themselves as reformists and helped Khatami get elected in a landslide in 1997, defeating Khamenei’s presumed candidate, Majles Speaker Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, the struggle came to the surface. Less than three years after Khatami’s election, Khamenei ordered the closure of dozens of newspapers and other publications, and the judiciary, under his control, jailed dozens of journalists, dissidents and outspoken reformists. Khatami’s program of reforms stalled, but it began the process of Khamenei shrinking in stature, which continues today.

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