Does the election in Iran matter?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader   Source:


Iran remains divided between reformists and conservatives.  President Ahmadinejad “won” the election Friday, and hundreds of opposition leaders have been detained.  Emotions among Iran-watchers worldwide have been on a roller coaster ride, as hopes of a new era have been dashed.

Certainly, elections in Iran matter – the importance of nascent democratic institutions, even in a theocracy, should not be underestimated.  Still, all rivers of power in Iran converge and flow directly into the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.  In making sense of the elections in Iran, the task is twofold:  one, understanding Khamenei and how the election fits into where he is taking Iran; and two, what is the outlook for Iran in a post-Khamenei era.  For these tasks, I recommend reading an article by Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Iran is ruled by a small group of clerics, desperate to stay in power.  They have opened enough avenues of expression to channel social pressures, while retaining ultimate power.  They garner support from a segment of the populace (arguably a declining one) by appealing to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution and warning of foreign enemies, especially the United States.  And, they position loyal “clerical commissars” throughout the bureaucracy, maintaining informal control of formal institutions.  This give-and-take between the clerical oligarchy and the people they rule can become a game of chicken that the authoritarians in the end ultimately lose.

The Constitution of 1979, as amended in 1989, confers extensive powers to the Supreme Leader.  Sadjadpour says:

“ As Supreme Leader, Khamenei’s constitutional authority is unparalleled. He controls the main levers of state—the courts, military, and media—by appointing the heads of the judiciary, state radio and television, the regular armed forces, and the elite Revolutionary Guards. He also has effective control over Iran’s second most powerful institution, the Guardian Council, a twelve-member body (all of whom are directly or indirectly appointed by Khamenei) that has the authority to vet electoral candidates and veto parliamentary decisions.”

It is true that the Supreme Leader is chosen by and answers to the elected Assembly of Experts, headed by one-time ally and rival, former President Rafsanjani.  The Assembly is a body of 86 largely septuagenarian clerics, required to meet twice annually.  Assembly members are elected by the people to eight year terms; however, candidates come from a list prepared by the government.  So, in theory, Khamenei controls the body that can, in the end, dismiss him.  He likewise has a finger, if not a full hand, in many of Iran’s complicated and overlapping political institutions.

In addition to his formal powers, as the Constitutionally-sanctioned final interpreter of Islamic issues, the Supreme Leader has the potential for nearly absolute power.  As a consequence, the Iranian president has much less power than the Supreme Leader, executing policy and managing the bureaucracy.  Yet in practice, the president is the country’s front man, as we have seen so unpleasantly with Ahmadinejad, both because of Khamenei’s reclusive nature and the regime’s strategy of fostering a theological mystique about the man and the office.

Khamenei, a close disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, remains true to the ideals of the Revolution.  He does so probably out of belief and as a strategy for survival.  The Iranian mullahs’ claim to legitimacy rests on their role in expelling foreign influence and cleaning up the corruption of the Shah.  They accomplished this through a return to Islamic piety.  Naturally, they keep sounding these themes to remind the impoverished Iranian public of the clerics’ rightful claim to power.  We shall see if this claim remains credible as time puts greater distance between the Iranian public and the Revolution.  (Regarding Iran’s mistreatment over the years at the hands of the great powers, especially the British, see Ken Pollack’s book, The Persian Puzzle.)

Khamenei is said to lack both the charisma and clerical legitimacy of his predecessor.  He was only made an ayatollah shortly before Khomeini designated him as his successor.  There is a dissident group of clerics in Iran that does not recognize his legitimacy.  Even though he has been in power twice as long as Khomeini, his shortcomings relative to the father of the Iranian Revolution can explain his behavior.  For example, even if he wanted to (and it is likely he does not), he could not become an Iranian Gorbachev or F.W. DeKlerk.  He must placate right-wing clerics by continuing to condemn the United States and Israel, and by maintaining strict Islamic piety, including the mandatory veil (hejab) for women.

Khamenei’s insecurity as leader has also necessitated a balancing of clashing interests in Iran.  First, by supporting Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami from 1989-2005, Khamenei countenanced an opening of Iran to the world — while never compromising on the regime’s hostility to the United States and Israel, and a modest loosening of restrictions on social practices.  Later, as a result of the popularity of the reformers, he swung back to the conservative “principalists,” epitomized by the pious, young engineer and mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad, who ensured a re-emphasis of the ideals of the Revolution.  This way he kept his rivals off balance, facilitated modest pragmatism both domestically and internationally (which by the way, ensured progress on the nuclear weapons program), reminded Iranians not to abandon key tenets of the Revolution, and allowed a release of pent-up social tension.  His swing back to orthodoxy was largely domestically driven, however, the advent of Bush on the international stage likewise facilitated this swing.

As for potential successors to Khamenei, the outlook is unclear.  Ahmadinejad, as a layman, is precluded from becoming Supreme Leader.  However, lest we forget that Khomeini had to amend the constitution to allow Khamenei to succeed him, the Assembly could amend the Constitution again.  Rafsanjani is five years older than Khamenei.  There are both conservative and reformist ayatollahs in the wings.  Sadjadpour’s article discusses some scenarios. 

What is clear is that authoritarian regimes can ignore popular pressure for participation only by delivering the economic goods. This is what we have seen in China over the last three decades, and in Russia more recently.  However, political monopoly can coexist with economic diversity only so long, especially once economic growth and the distribution of wealth falter.  Iran’s economy is state-dominated and creaking, with billions of petro-dollars going to food and energy subsidies, buying off the populace, especially the poor.  As in Russia, Venezuela and other populous oil exporters, as long as oil prices are high, the authoritarian regime has time.  But, commodity markets rise and fall, as do governments.

What about Iran’s so-called democracy?  We should not dismiss the importance of formal institutions, such as Iran’s legislature, presidency and other elected bodies.  These institutions, though emasculated of real power, can ease a transition to a broader democracy, the way the Soviet Duma did with the fall of Communism.  Countries with arguably less-developed institutions, such as Saudi Arabia, where some 5,000 princes rule and its consultative assembly (majles) is very limited, should have a more difficult time transitioning to representative democracy.

Finally, what does the election mean for relations with the West?  First, the bad news.  Whether reformists or conservatives rule Iran, the nation’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapon will likely remain firm.  Self-reliance and freedom from foreign influence remain key pillars of the Revolution and of the Iranian narrative.  A nuclear weapon symbolizes a broad-based commitment of the Iranian nation to rising to great power status.

Sure, engagement would be easier with moderates.  Further, the probability of an acceptable agreement over the bomb, however low, is higher with the moderates.  And, the bomb is only one aspect of the West’s relationship with Iran, though arguably the most important.  Nevertheless, if the West really wants to stop Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon, nothing short of a boycott of oil exports would do the trick.

Sadjadpour says this about a policy of engagement with Iran:

“Any successful approach to engaging Iran must be tailored to take into account Khamenei’s central role in Iran’s decision-making process and his deeply held suspicions:

• Khamenei must be convinced that the United States is prepared to recognize and respect the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and must be disabused of his conviction that U.S. policy is to bring about regime change, not negotiate behavior change.

• Khamenei will never agree to any arrangement in which Iran is expected to publicly retreat or admit defeat, nor can he be forced to compromise through pressure alone. Besides the issue of saving face, he believes deeply that compromising in the face of pressure is counterproductive, as it projects weakness and only encourages greater pressure.

• Successful engagement will require a direct channel of communication with the Supreme Leader’s office, preferably with Khamenei himself. He is wary of domestic rivals and will not take any foreign policy decision that may benefit Iran but risk hurting his own political interests. The Clinton administration’s unsuccessful attempts to downplay and bypass Khamenei and engage Khatami and the reformists in 2000 are a case in point.”

So, engagement is possible.  President Obama may have the magic to do it.  Nevertheless, engagement is unlikely to yield extensive results, especially regarding nuclear weapons.  And, the good news?  In spite of Moussavi’s loss this Friday (real or fraudulent), reformism is alive and well in the Islamic Republic.

 Photo:  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.  Source:

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