Iran: how 'Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's candidate' lost the election
Since the announcement of , pundits in Iran and the west have sought to answer the question of how Ayatollah Ali Khamenei let a candidate who was not his favourite win.
Many are convinced the election was preplanned and engineered by Khamenei, the purported puppet master. But that view is based on an inherent misunderstanding of the nature of politics in and the thinking of Iranian politician – or at least the thinking of Khamenei. Iranian politics is conceived as a packaged project, conducted by the supreme leader according to a largely rigid mindset, and coloured by personal sentiment.
In reality, politics in Iran, like elsewhere, is a complex process in which even the most powerful player, faced with an unfolding, unpredicted set of events, has no choice but to re-evaluate, recalculate, and eventually choose from a limited array of options.
No one can get into Khamenei's head, though it is ever-tempting to try. The problem with speculation – including ours – is that from a pool of inconsistent deeds and statements, one or another can always be retroactively chosen and presented as explanatory.
For example, some have claimed that the acceptance of Rouhani – who repeatedly criticised Iran's approach to the nuclear issue during his campaign – demonstrated that Khamenei was worried about the impact of international sanctions and had given the green light to accede to western demands. But they do not take into consideration that in his remarkable speech two days before the election, in which for the first time he asked those who opposed the regime to vote for the sake of their country, Khamenei implicitly repeated his stance on the state's nuclear prerogatives: "The more weakness you show and [the more you] retreat, the more the enemy will advance forward."
Rather than attempt to analyse Khamenei as a figure with absolute power whose shifts and contradictions are due primarily to internal, mental struggles, it is much more revealing to see him as an individual situated within a web of sociopolitical forces that both affect and are affected by him. This sheds light on a significant consequence of the election that has been largely neglected in its aftermath: how the severe defeat suffered by Saeed Jalili – the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran's top nuclear negotiator – effectively marginalised the radical conservatives who supported him, the same group that had been most vocal in its devotion to the supreme leader.
This inevitably brings us back to the 2009 presidential election. The dispute over the results four years ago had consequences unforeseen by the regime's top ranks, dragging them into a struggle for survival. After 3 million people marched in silence through Tehran, giving birth to the Green Movement, Khamenei gave a sermon at Friday prayers, assuming that, as in the past, he could have the final say and end the protests. This did not happen. Instead the Green Movement and the threat it posed to the ruling system grew, as Iranians took to the streets with shouts of "Death to Khamenei".
The supreme leader expected the regime's elite to publicly support him and affirm the official vote count. But, in his words, much of the elite "chose circumspection" to save their own skins and remained silent. This left an opening for a radical faction among the so-called principlists, the political and religious conservatives who dominated the regime, to take the reins. Though for years these radicals had called themselves the most devoted followers of the supreme leader, they had previously maintained only a marginal role in the polity. Now a desperate Khamenei relied on them, as they were the only ones ready to support a battle with the Green Movement on the streets.
When Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, the radicals had aligned themselves with him and for the first time gained a substantial foothold in the government. Their harsh rhetoric was mostly directed at the reformists and centrists like former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but at the same time they tried to uproot the traditional faction of the principlists. Their honeymoon period with Ahmadinejad soon ended and they decided to officially declare themselves under the banner of Jebheh-e Paaydaari – the Perseverance, or Stability, Front.
It has been widely reported how the and, especially, parliamentary elections. But it is less acknowledged how afraid this body of traditional principlists was of the radicals in their own camp, whose spiritual leader was the fundamentalist Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the only ayatollah to have bowed down in front of Khamenei.
In the 2006 voting for the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked on paper with supervising the supreme leader, the Guardian Council disqualified a group of Mesbah Yazdi's disciples, including his son.
Despite having openly stated his disbelief in popular elections, Yazdi himself was voted in to the Assembly. Other principlists endeavoured strenuously and, in the end, successfully to prevent him from becoming the body's speaker.
Jebheh-e Paaydaari saw the opportunity to gain power after the disputed 2009 election, and criticised others in the principlist camp with increasing severeity. In January 2012, Assembly of Experts speaker, Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, revealed that he had complained directly to the supreme leader about allowing the radicals to behave in this manner. Referencing a Persian proverb to suggest that Khamenei would be abandoned by his other allies if he continued to condone the radicals, Mahdavi Kani reportedly said: "The way some [of your] friends are behaving, only Ali and his pond will remain."
For all of their claims to blindly follow the supreme leader, the radicals on many occasions presented him with a fait accompli. In November 2011, for instance, the followers of the , an act condemned by Khamenei as well as commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
It should thus not have been surprising when the Guardian Council disqualified the Jebheh-e Paaydaari's main candidate, Kamran Bagheri Lankarani – described by Yazdi as the most righteous person "on earth and under the sky" – from this year's presidential election.
Disappointed, the radicals closed ranks behind Jalili, who had previously failed to attract an endorsement from any principlist faction.
During the campaign, instead of attacking the more moderate candidates, Jalili's new supporters went after their principlist rivals, deriding them as "silent parties in the sedition", unwilling to openly support the supreme leader during the 2009 protests. At their rallies and religious gatherings they coined slogans to suggest their candidate was Khamenei's choice; "I vote for Jalili for the love of my leader!" went one oft-repeated chant. All the other approved presidential candidates also had direct connections with the supreme leader, but none dared claim he was Khamenei's favourite.
The election saw further splits among the principlists. While Guard high commanders – including Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force – supported Tehran mayor and former Guard air force chief, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, high-ranking conservative clerics backed Ali Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader's top foreign affairs adviser. On one point, though, most principlists were agreed: while Rouhani was hardly their favourite, it was Jalili and his supporters who were most despised.
Hoping he would intervene in the election, the radicals ultimately tried to force Khamenei's hand. A few hours after voting ended, a radical news website unexpectedly announced the results from ballot box number 110, in which the supreme leader had cast his still-secret vote: Jalili was in the lead. But Khamenei ended up joining the consensus that the radicals needed to be restrained.
It may be asked, then, why the supreme leader trusted Jalili to be Iran's top nuclear negotiator in the first place. But the question, so framed, again tries to dig into Khamenei's mind instead of looking at his actions within a multivalent political context in which different power cliques must be served. It also buys into the very representation of Khamenei promoted by Jalili's supporters – that he was particularly trusted by the supreme leader.
In allowing the radicals to lose, Khamenei also liberated himself from much of their influence. As one principlist reportedly said, "Jalili's supporters had taken the supreme leader as their hostage." Indeed, they had appropriated Khamenei's image and succeeded in selling it to most of his opponents. Pundits joined in, reading his mind based on the radicals' self-serving representation.
If the fade-out of the radical faction continues, it should not be a surprise to see a shift in speculation about the supreme leader.
After all, the moderates and even some reformists have learned how to appropriate Khamenei and represent him according to their own narration – as seen in post-election expressions of gratitude to him such as the one by reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami.
Traditional principlists are meanwhile settling scores with the radicals. In the weeks since the election, a new discourse has emerged in which the Jebheh-e Paaydaari is compared to the Kharijites, an early Islamic group who were initially in the camp of Ali – the first Shia imam and the supreme leader's namesake – and fought against his opponents, but later rebelled and eventually assassinated him. As a principlist writer recently said: "We must remember that Ali was martyred not by his opponents, but by the very same people who for years touched their foreheads to prayer stones and stood behind him in prayer."
• Ali Reza Eshraghi was a senior editor at several reformist Iranian dailies. He is Iran project manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Amir Hossein Mahdavi is a former Iranian journalist and coexistence and conflict research asssistant at Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.
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