Iran's Supreme Leader Faces Two Huge Decisions

July 1, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Iran

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

A successful nuclear deal will be an enormous triumph for Rouhani, increasing his power and influence. If the sanctions have started coming off by election time, his friends would have a good chance at success. The combination of these two would put Rouhani in a position of strength that few of his predecessors have even approached. Challenging him would be difficult. The international and economic impact of reduced tensions with the West would have unpredictable effects on Iranian politics; some that are mighty now could be laid low, creating a state of flux. The net result could be change without control. This could lead to a new era in Iranian politics, but the remains of the old order would be standing in the way. The resulting confrontation would be bloody, and it is not at all clear that the reformists and moderates would prevail. Khamenei isn’t likely to take a path that would risk Iran surging beyond his control, and he typically has been careful to contain rival political figures, so he probably won’t allow Rouhani two great victories in a row.

A nuclear deal without a domestic opening

Economic growth without reform would be the vital phrase here. A rejuvenated economy can reduce many of the same pressures that create incentives for a domestic opening—youth unemployment, etc. And the lean years of the sanctions saw regime-friendly economic actors, particularly those with ties to the Revolutionary Guards, absorbing weakened firms. A more dynamic economy might not endanger the regime so much if its friends are poised to capture much of the growth. Still, the key here for Khamenei is that Rouhani will be less likely to surpass him. And because Khamenei has so many domestic tools, he’d be able to calibrate his moves more finely.

No nuclear deal, but a domestic opening

The failure of the nuclear talks would crush Rouhani, and may even put pressure on the mainline conservatives (and supreme leaders) who supported his efforts. Hardline actors would be empowered, as they were last time a major nuclear deal pushed by moderates broke down. However, a political opening would still create opportunities for reformist factions. The net result would be more power at the extremes of the Iranian spectrum. This would be harder for Khamenei to manage, and would likely prove unsustainable. With reformists pushing for another try at a nuclear deal and hardliners pushing against Rouhani’s economic reforms—and thus risking an economic meltdown—all roads would lead back to the negotiating table, only this time with choppier politics at home. The only real positive for Khamenei? America might fear spoiling reformist successes and thus be less likely to use the military option against the nuclear program.

No deal and no opening

This path would be least likely to cause an immediate change in the character of the regime, since no new political forces would be introduced. Yet a sustained economic slump, a disillusioned public and a growing danger of war would slowly increase pressure on the regime. If that didn’t lead to a second crack at the nuclear deal or a later attempt at opening (say, with the 2017 presidential election), the regime may find itself forced to crack down on a restive public, becoming more authoritarian and giving up some of its safety valves on discontent. It may also find the prospect of war less troubling—social mobilization against a common enemy could look like good politics for dark times. Allowing Ahmadinejad-type hardline populists back into the political system would be another of Khamenei’s risky options here, since they can energize and buy off regime-friendly masses.

The fourth path may seem to fit best with Khamenei’s rhetoric—he’s skeptical of the West and of political openness, and he sees sanctions as a potential tool for autarkic economic reforms. Yet, to borrow a phrase from Khamenei himself, “What was the purpose of sitting at the negotiating table and wrangling with [the West]? The purpose was to lift the sanctions.” If Khamenei doesn’t want to change anything, why has he spent more than two years in talks? Why did he let Rouhani win the presidency? Even if we accept the skeptic’s view of the nuclear talks—that their goal is to break the sanctions regime while only delaying the nuclear program—it’s looking like even that will require Khamenei make a deal. Preserving today’s status quo is only going to get harder, and Khamenei seems to know that.