The unintended consequences of Khamenei’s latest power grab
In yet another authoritarian push, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has scored a victory by consolidating his autonomous rule because his social and political base — the hard-liners — made significant gains in last week’s parliamentary elections.
The triumph of the hard-liners was most likely premeditated and predetermined by the supreme leader. The Guardian Council, whose members are directly or indirectly appointed by Khamenei, disqualified more than 7,000 candidates ahead of the vote. The majority of those who were disqualified were from the reformist, independent, pragmatic and moderate political parties.
From Khamenei’s perspective, pragmatism comes second to the revolutionary ideals of the Islamic Republic, which include anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, exporting the principles of the revolution to other nations, and pursuing hegemonic ambitions in the region. As a result, the regime made sure that those who qualified and were elected are ideologues, staunchly loyal to the supreme leader and the revolutionary goals of the Islamic Republic.
Khamenei normally instructs the Guardian Council either behind closed doors or by the council taking notes from his public speeches. In the months prior to the elections, Khamenei made several speeches warning the system against allowing some candidates from standing in the elections. In one speech, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute, he called for a “strong Majlis (Iran’s parliament)” and clarified that by saying it must be made up of “courageous, effective, obedient, motivated (candidates) loyal to Islam.” He added: “Anyone who fears speaking out against a certain foreign power (the US) is not fit to represent the honorable, mighty and brave Iranian public.”
The other objective of Khamenei and his hard-line circle is to further undermine the presidential office. By losing the Majlis, President Hassan Rouhani has lost the limited power that he possessed. He is now more like a figurehead who is told exactly what to do, and his function is restricted to setting the tone for Khamenei and the senior cadre of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the international stage.
This is why the reformists and even Rouhani and his fellow moderates have been infuriated by Khamenei’s actions. Surprisingly, they have even been voicing their criticisms in public. In a recent meeting with Iran’s provincial governors, Rouhani warned that the biggest threat to Iran’s national sovereignty comes when people perceive that elections are totally irrelevant. Rouhani added that the country should not become similar to how it was during the shah’s regime, when, he claimed, “it was determined in Tehran who would be elected and, though the public voted as they pleased, at the end of the election the name of the candidate pre-selected by Tehran was always revealed at the polling places.”
By ensuring the hard-liners dominate the Majlis, Khamenei is using another authoritarian method to silence any opposition
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
By ensuring the hard-liners dominate the Majlis, Khamenei is using another authoritarian method to silence any opposition to his decisions. He is also stifling one of the few democratic elements left in the system in order to further tighten his grip on power.
Khamenei has been more forcefully pursuing this trend in the last two years, particularly after people began protesting in the streets in large numbers. For example, the Majlis was not involved in the decision to hike gas prices a few months ago — a move that sparked further widespread unrest. In 2018, Khamenei also formed a committee, labeled the economic war room, which consists of two hard-liners and one so-called moderate: The heads of the three branches of government — Rouhani, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, and Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi. The committee essentially grants the supreme leader the power to enact any law he desires by skirting parliament and Iran’s lawmakers.
But it is critical to point out that Khamenei, like other autocrats of the past, is failing to recognize that, although he is gaining more power, his actions are ushering in unintended consequences that endanger the survival of the entire theocratic establishment.
While the Iranian people used to believe that they might be capable of changing the regime from within, as well as countering Khamenei’s autonomous rule by voting for reformists and moderates in elections, they now appear to have lost that hope. Large sections of the Iranian populace have come to the realization that it is impossible to change the regime from within. Instead, the only solution is to force the theocratic establishment out. And this is why we are increasingly hearing calls from the people asking Khamenei to step down, while also chanting, “Reformists, hard-liners, the whole game is over.”
While Khamenei is robustly pushing to strengthen his rule by centralizing control and crushing opposition, he is paradoxically endangering the survival of the Islamic Republic by giving the Iranian people no option other than to seek regime change.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an 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