Iran's Supreme Leader Faces Two Huge Decisions

Will Khamenei make a nuclear deal—and how far will he let Rouhani go at home?

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, faces two momentous decisions in the coming months, decisions which could shape his country for a generation. The first decision will likely come in the next week: Will he allow his nuclear negotiators to make a deal? The second will be made in the next six months or so: Will he allow Iran to move toward transparency and reform, particularly with relatively open elections for the Assembly of Experts and the Islamic Consultative Assembly—the Majles—in February 2016? On both questions, Khamenei can say yes or no. He is choosing, in other words, between four possible futures:

  • A nuclear deal and a domestic opening

  • A nuclear deal without a domestic opening

  • No nuclear deal, but a domestic opening

  • No deal and no opening

Each future has a unique set of dangers and benefits for the supreme leader and his regime. Each future will also shape Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s place within the political system, and Iran’s role in the region. We’ll examine each path to see which one Khamenei is likely to find most promising. But first, let’s set the scene.

Two big choices

The nuclear issue is, effectively, the only issue in Iranian politics today. Of course, a nation of eighty million with major economic problems, controversial social policies and a neighborhood in chaos has many political challenges. But all of these are transfixed by the nuclear issue. Sanctions relief could revitalize the economy, and economic vitality could take the edge off many social challenges. Reduced tensions with the West could allow easier, less adversarial approaches to some regional troubles; increased tensions if the deal fails will only make Iran’s regional situation harder and increase the risk of war. Political tactics amplify the nuclear issue’s impact: to keep mainline conservatives on board with the nuclear talks, the Rouhani administration hasn’t made any bold moves toward a more open society. As the blog IranPolitik has written, this comes at a price for Rouhani—his more reform-minded supporters will not be patient forever. If the nuclear talks reach any decisive outcome, Rouhani will have less reason to keep the mainline conservatives so close. The present political settlement will be in question. What happens in Vienna in the next week will thus have an enormous impact on Iran’s politics—and the choice is Khamenei’s.

The domestic decision is more complicated. Khamenei has many levers he can pull to shape internal politics, and his powers stretch far beyond those explicitly described in the Islamic Republic’s constitution. It’s thus reductive to say that he faces any final, black-or-white decisions. His regime can make a little step toward openness in one area—say, by letting women go to sporting events—and then balance it with a step toward closure in another—say, by shutting down a newspaper. Khamenei’s personal role in the action is rarely clear. Often, a holistic view is the only way to really grasp Khamenei’s social policy.

All that said, some of Khamenei’s domestic moves matter more than others, and the 2016 elections will be very important. The Assembly of Experts isn’t a very active body, but it does select the supreme leader. Khamenei, seventy-five years old and in questionable health, is already one of the longest-serving rulers in the world; by the time the experts elected in 2016 finish their eight-year terms, he will be eighty-four. The odds are good that they’ll be picking his successor, a choice which may shape Iranian politics for decades. A hardline supreme leader could hold back opening; a moderate could manage it. A strong supreme leader could preserve or expand the office’s role; a weak one could allow other parts of the regime to ascend.

The Majles doesn’t have that long-term power, but it does have more day-to-day importance—it can assist or thwart the president’s plans, and it can harass and even remove his ministers. (That it has never used this latter power, known as interpellation, against a minister of foreign affairs, defense, intelligence or justice shows that the Majles’s power has limits.) More broadly, it serves as a space for surprisingly contentious debates on government policy. It’s not almighty by any means—it can be blocked by the Guardian Council—but it does matter. Assuming a freer election to the Majles and the Assembly of Experts would be more favorable to Rouhani than to Khamenei and more hard-line factions, the conduct of the elections will be a choice by Khamenei about how long Rouhani’s leash will be. Khamenei can still shorten the leash later, but that would carry its own risk of discontent. The 2016 elections do matter.

With all that context, let’s look now at the four paths Khamenei can choose, and what each would mean for Iran.

A nuclear deal and a domestic opening

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