Iran’s Guardian Council, the constitutional body that vets the candidates for almost all elections in the country, recently barred Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running in the presidential elections of June 14. Rafsanjani, an architect of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, is a former two-term president and speaker of the “Majles” (parliament). Currently he is chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, which arbitrates disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council and acts as adviser to the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In 1989, Rafsanjani played a key role in elevating Khamenei, then a low-rank cleric, to his Supreme Leader position, and Khamenei repeatedly has referred to Rafsanjani as the “pillar of the revolution.”
Rafsanjani’s elimination from the presidential campaign has shocked the nation. Calling it “unbelievable,” Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, publicly expressed his anger and said that he had conveyed Qom’s major clerics’ disapproval to Khamenei. Khomeini’s daughter, Dr. Zahra Mostafavi, wrote a letter to Khamenei in which she reminded him of her father’s complete trust in Rafsanjani. In another letter to Khamenei, Ali Motahhari, a Majles deputy and son of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, an ideologue of the Revolution, said that if Khomeini himself were to run today, the Guardian Council would bar him. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who lives in Iraq and is the most important “Marja,” or source of emulation for the masses, had supported Rafsanjani’s bid for presidency. But Rafsanjani’s candidacy had also created a huge wave of support among the common people. This terrifies hardliners afraid that the Green Movement may come out on the streets again. Repression and crackdown on the reformist activists and supporters of the Green Movement have already increased.
Rafsanjani’s elimination also represents a significant new development in Iranian politics—namely, the end of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Although Khamenei is still referred to in Iran as the “leader of the Islamic revolution,” he now has achieved his long-term goal of transforming Iran into a religio-military dictatorship. To do this, he had to win a fierce power struggle with the moderates, reformists and supporters of the Green Movements, as well as many among the clergy who oppose him, albeit quietly.
Before being appointed Supreme Leader, Khamenei had no significant base of support, either in the society or among the grand ayatollahs. When the revolution was gathering steam in the fall of 1978, he did not even belong to Khomeini’s inner circle. It was Rafsanjani, a trusted Khomeini disciple, who brought Khamenei into the revolution’s high echelons. Due to his low-rank clerical position, Khamenei has never trusted the clerics, except those who have been willing to be absolutely obedient to him. Thus, he has devoted much of his time as Supreme Leader to efforts to consolidate a power base consisting of the security and intelligence forces and the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC).
His office, known in Iran as the beit-e rahbari (abode of the Leader), is run by people with backgrounds in intelligence and security. His chief of staff, cleric Mohammad (Gholam-Hossein) Mohammadi Golpayegani, who is father-in-law of Khamenei’s daughter Boshra, once was a judge of military courts and a deputy minister of intelligence. Khamenei’s chief of security is another cleric, Asghar (Sadegh) Mir Hedjazi, who coordinates everything with the IRGC and intelligence forces and was one of the founders of the ministry of intelligence in the 1980s. Khamenei’s chief personal aide and deputy chief of staff is Vahid Haghanian, known in Iran’s political circles as Agha [Mr.] Vahid, who is an IRGC officer in the Sarallah Base, the large IRGC military barracks responsible for Tehran’s security.
Beginning in 1989, Khamenei permitted the IRGC to enter the economic domain, to the point that it is now in practical control of Iran’s official and underground economies. Gradually, he also has allowed the IRGC to intervene in the political processes, in direct contradiction to Khomeini’s insistence that such political activity by the IRGC be barred. Hundreds of IRGC officers are members of parliament, governors or senior managers of the vast bureaucracy. In addition to supporting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former security/intelligence officer, in the presidential elections of 2005 and 2009, Khamenei gave a free hand to the IRGC to use violence to crack down on peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 elections. IRGC officers, acting as interrogators of political prisoners and dissidents, tell the judiciary what sentences the prisoners must receive. Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, a hardline IRGC officer, acts as an “adviser” to judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, another Khamenei puppet. Kayhan, the hardline newspaper and Khamenei’s mouthpiece, is run by Hossein Shariatmadari, a security/intelligence agent.
Although Tehran’s Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, an IRGC Brigadier General and former commander of the national police, can attract middle class votes in Tehran and other large cities, it appears that Khamenei’s man in the forthcoming elections is Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council. Khamenei has reportedly boasted about “discovering” Jalili. He too has a military background, having been a member of the Basij militia, a branch of the IRGC, who lost his right leg in the Iran-Iraq war in 1987. After the war, he ran the security division of the foreign ministry and received a Ph.D. in political science from Imam Sadegh University in Tehran, which turns out rigid ideologues for the regime. Another possibility is former foreign minister and current senior foreign policy adviser to Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati.
Khamenei seems oblivious to the mountain of complex problems facing Iran, including high inflation and unemployment (partly caused by tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies), widespread corruption and an ominous brain drain. The Supreme Leader apparently believes that Iran is on the verge of becoming the most important power in the Middle East and thus he wants his regime to focus on Iran’s pressing foreign policy problems, such as the chaos in Syria and the standoff with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. That is why he appears to favor a candidate with foreign policy experience, either Jalili or Velayati. The former might have the edge, as he appears to be an uncorrupted member of the ruling elite, a rigid ideologue and a seemingly ardent foe of the West. The same types of characteristics were attributed to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, during his first presidential run.
Another apparent power-struggle loser is Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a hardline cleric and former supporter of Ahmadinejad. Although he has been the only major clerical figure to openly support Khamenei, his faction’s efforts to elevate its power position have been blocked by Khamenei. In the Majles elections of 2012, Mesabah Yazdi’s candidate slate was defeated by Khamenei’s supporters. He also was thwarted in his effort to promote his own candidate for president, former minister of health Kamran Bagheri Lankarani, who is a medical doctor. Mesabah Yazdi was told by a Khamenei emissary that Lankarani must withdraw from the race, which he did in favor of Jalili.
Shortly after the disputed 2009 elections, I wrote that Khamenei was bent on putting Iran on a path in which the military and security apparatus would be supreme. I cited his support for Ahmadinejad and his willingness to stand up against the nation and allow the IRGC to use violence against peaceful demonstrators. When Khamenei engineered Rafsanjani’s 2011 removal as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that can theoretically sack Khamenei, this left no moderate faction within the power hierarchy. It was predicted that Iran would continue marching toward authoritarianism. These predictions have turned out to be correct. The “republic” part of the Islamic Republic has lost its meaning, along with anything meaningful that can be attributed to elections in Iran. As Kaleme, the website of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a Green Movement leader who has been under house arrest since February 2011, put it, the action against Rafsanjani’s candidacy is “putting a bullet in the dying body of the Revolution.”
Muhammad Sahimi is Professor of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science and the NIOC Chair at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. For nearly two decades he has been analyzing Iran's political developments and its nuclear program. His writings have been published in the leading mainstream media (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian). From 2008-2012 he was the lead political columnist for the website PBS/Frontline: Tehran Bureau. He is co-founder and editor of Iran News & Middle East Reports.