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Iran's Incredible Shrinking Ayatollah

Iran's Incredible Shrinking Ayatollah

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

The hard-liners’ heavy defeats have angered Khamenei deeply. Since February 26, when the elections were held, he has been lashing out at the reformists and moderates, the leaders of the Green Movement and the United States. His allies in the IRGC have done the same. To show their displeasure, many IRGC senior officers, including its current chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari and its former commander Major General Mohsen Rezaei, have been fiercely attacking Rouhani and his administration. They have also been trying to block Rouhani’s diplomacy by staging unnecessary missile tests that have further angered Saudi Arabia and neoconservatives in the United States. In March, when Rafsanjani said that “Iran’s future is in dialogue, not missiles,” Khamenei angrily accused him of treason.

But Khamenei’s anger also has to do with next year’s presidential elections. His supporters have been talking about Rouhani becoming Iran’s first one-term president in thirty-five years. But Rouhani’s success in concluding the nuclear negotiations, alongside the victories of the reformists and moderates who support him, has made that prospect hard to realize.

Furthermore, Khamenei and the deep state are terrified by the prospect of improved relations between Tehran and the West. Khamenei has emphasized that the nuclear agreement does not imply that Iran will improve its relations with Washington, yet the reformists and moderates have been advocating better relations with the West. In a press conference during his visit to Italy in January, Rouhani called for better relations with the United States, but also said that “the key to that is in Washington’s hands, not Tehran’s,” implicitly challenging Khamenei’s authority in the foreign policy domain.

There is a fierce power struggle in Iran between those who want to open up Iran and reconcile with the rest of the world, and Khamenei and his supporters who have been frozen in the revolutionary era of 1979. Although he still has immense power, Khamenei has shrunk in stature and is merely the leader of a small minority. The West can tip the balance of the struggle in favor of the reformists and moderates by delivering on its promise of allowing large investments in that nation. It is not helpful when Secretary of State John Kerry boasts that “Iran has received only $3 billion” since the sanctions were supposedly lifted. Khamenei and the hard-liners have been using this to attack Rouhani and his supporters.

The question is, which side is the West on: Iran’s hard-liners and Khamenei, or the reformists and moderates?

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is the editor and publisher of the website, Iran News and Middle East Reports, and has been analyzing Iran’s political developments and its nuclear program for two decades.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Khamenei.ir