But Trump has his own barometer of success: The number of followers of his Twitter account. At a dinner party in Florida a few weeks ago, he told a friend that his aim was to have at least 100 million Twitter followers by the end of his first term. Trump also boasted that no political leader came anywhere near him in terms of the number of Twitter followers.
Do political leaders worry about how many Twitter followers they have? We have no means of finding out. What is certain is that many politicians share Trump’s obsession. The foreign minister of a country whose total population is under half a million claims he has 2.5 million Twitter followers. His jealous rivals claim he has bought most of them through “Twitter marketing” companies operating from Macedonia, for an average price of $1 for every 1,000.
One leader we did not expect to be worried about his Twitter account is Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. To his entourage, he is not only the arbiter of Iran’s fate but also “leader of all Muslims in the world,” whether they like it or not. Khamenei fancies himself as a poet and author, while also doubling as professor of applied theology in a private seminary for students on his payroll.
A chorus of flatterers keeps telling him that all mankind is thirsty for his thoughts. Khamenei pens periodical open letters to the “youths of the world.” His literary exercises are translated into countless languages, and distributed by Iranian embassies and Hezbollah branches.
According to the Kayhan daily, Khamenei’s presence in a province leads to a return of the spring at any season, with birds chirping earlier and flowers blooming while the air acquires an inexplicable fragrance. He has written on many issues, including healthy Islamic diet, the secrets of a successful marriage, composing poetry, naval warfare, and last but not least, destroying Israel and America.
None dare question his supremacy. At least, if one ignores Twitter which, even if you purchased followers in Macedonia, may still ditch you as a fickle lover might in a tiff. This seems to be what happened to Khamenei last month when the number of his Twitter followers fell from 2.2 million on Jan. 1 to just over 960,000 on Jan. 25.
What happened? First, we had the uprising that mobilized thousands of people in 100 cities across Iran. The uprising was not the work of traditional opponents of the regime, but an expression of anger by ordinary citizens from all walks of life.
For the first time, Khamenei was denounced by name while regime grandees tried to earn kudos by slyly blaming him for everything. He made the mistake of going into seclusion for almost a week while top officials, notably President Hassan Rouhani, Islamic Chief Justice Sadeq Amoli, and even payroll ayatollahs such as Makarem Shirazi, tried to curry favor with the protesters at Khamenei’s expense.
Khamenei reminds one of the wizard of Oz, who knew he was no wizard but could not escape the role because others needed him to pose as one.
Next, a cyberspace bomb was detonated against him with the online publication of a video from 1989 depicting the proceedings of the Assembly of Experts, a body of mullahs tasked with choosing a successor to Khamenei’s predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, who had died.
The wizard had no Twitter account, but had he had one, he would have felt the same pain at being shunned as Khamenei does these days.
In the video, since seen by more than 10 million visitors to various websites, we see the late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the regime’s Machiavellian wheeler-dealer, trying to persuade a horrified Khamenei to accept the post of supreme leader. The deal offered is: Rafsanjani becomes president in place of Khamenei, who becomes supreme leader in place of Khomeini.
We see Khamenei almost shouting that he is wholly unqualified for such a lofty position. He is a junior mullah who has not completed even the first stages of training as a mujtahid, a person authorized to issue fatwas or opinions on matters of doctrine. It is like promoting an army private to the position of five-star marshal and commander-in-chief. “We should shed tears of blood for a nation who might even consider me as leader,” Khamenei says.
But the wily Rafsanjani calms the situation by telling him that his promotion would be temporary, until a permanent successor is found. The rest is history. The temporary becomes permanent, and Rafsanjani, who gets the presidency in time, finds out what Dr. Frankenstein did belatedly. The publication of the video unleashed a storm because it reveals the ugly truth that the Khomeinist regime has always been founded on lies and subterfuge.
The so-called “election” violated Article 109 of the constitution, under which the supreme leader must be chosen from among the maraj’e (sources of emulation) — a handful of grand ayatollahs, not just anyone who wore a turban.
The irony is that Khamenei is better educated than Khomeini, and his command of Persian and Arabic firmer. Having spent years studying Khomeini’s work to write his biography, I could claim that the late ayatollah was far from qualified to pose as senior theologian, an opinion that almost all top ayatollahs share, albeit in private.
Also, the cult of personality built around Khamenei, though distasteful, is nowhere near the idolatrous chorus barking around Khomeini. Even when it comes to such evil records as the number of executions and political prisoners, Khamenei’s is still far from nearing Khomeini’s.
I do not know if Khamenei still believes he is unqualified to be supreme leader. In any case, it does not matter now. What matters is that the whole supreme leader rigmarole and the mythology built around it have been exposed as a sham.
Khamenei reminds one of the wizard of Oz, who knew he was no wizard but could not escape the role because others needed him to pose as one. The wizard had no Twitter account, but had he had one, he would have felt the same pain at being shunned as Khamenei does these days.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Twitter: @ AmirTaheri4