Some scholars and policy analysts are interpreting Khamenei’s opposition to Rouhani as a manifestation of Iran’s dynamic, democratic and inclusive political system. However, looking closely at the history of the Iranian regime and Khamenei’s nearly three-decade rule, it becomes evident that this argument is simplistic and fails to demonstrate the complexity of the regime’s apparatuses.
Since Khamenei became supreme leader in June 1989, he has distanced himself from his presidents, especially in their second presidential term; he has done this with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjnai, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and now Rouhani. For example, Khamenei’s criticism of Ahmadinejad in his second term was evident, although the regime’s leader strongly endorsed Ahmadinejad at the beginning of his term and promoted him later.
So why would Khamenei criticize his presidents in public? First of all, he knows that they cannot fulfill people’s economic demands because the nation’s revenues are directed to the treasury of the Office of the Supreme Leader and spent on Khamenei’s gilded circle of cronies, proxies and military advisers. Khamenei has made it clear in his speeches that Rouhani has failed to improve the Iranian people’s economic life or fulfill any of his economic promises.
Khamenei is distancing himself from the president’s failures. He is evading responsibility and accountability. He is attempting to manipulate the disaffected population, who are suffering from unemployment and poverty, by telling them simply that Rouhani is the one to blame, and your supreme leader sympathizes with you. Khamenei is deluding the people into believing that, like the overwhelming majority of the Iranian people, he too is opposed to the government in the shape of the presidential office.
Khamenei’s tactic is pure hypocrisy, because he has the final say on where Iran’s major revenues are spent. He instructed the “moderate” Rouhani to increase the military’s budget, which was raised by nearly $500 million this year. He instructed Rouhani to spend more money on Iran’s ballistic program.
The Iranian president has served his purpose of obtaining economic and political concessions from the West, and the supreme leader can now blame him for unemployment and poverty.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
The second reason behind Khamenei’s strategy is to justify further empowering of his hardline core. By criticizing Rouhani, Khamenei is pointing out that the “moderates” have failed to make economic, social, religious, cultural or political progress. Therefore, the alternative is to give more power to the hardliners. That is why Khamenei has recently appointed the hardliner Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi chairman of the regime’s Expediency Council, members of which are chosen by the Supreme Leader every five years. Khamenei even appointed the notorious former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi and several other hardcore mullahs to the council as well.
This manipulative skill and modus operandi of Khamenei is one of the major reasons that the theocrat has been capable of ruling for nearly three decades. He has always been successful at choosing a president who can forcefully accomplish the regime’s objectives on the international stage, and at the same time bow to the Supreme Leader when criticized in the public.
In a nutshell, Khamenei’s criticism of Rouhani is a Machiavellian tactic. He has used Rouhani to obtain economic and political concessions from the West because of Rouhani’s diplomatic skills. He used the president as an excuse to strengthen the regime’s hard core. He has also used the president as a pawn to avoid responsibility and accountability for failures in delivering the people’s economic demands. Rouhani is into this game with Khamenei. The supreme leader is masterful at grooming presidents who are powerless when it comes to making major decisions, but are willing to accept blame and responsibility for failures.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh