Iran: Khamenei Will Control Policy No Matter Who Is President – OpEd
By Arab News
By Hassan Al-Mustafa*
During a televised speech to the members of Iran’s parliament last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei urged all citizens to participate in the June 18 presidential election, warning against “those who promote voting abstention” and saying “they do not sympathize with the people.”
Khamenei was clearly responding, while naming no one, to widespread criticism of the decision by the Guardian Council to bar a number of candidates from standing and instead issue a restricted list of just seven people considered eligible to compete in the election.
Former Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri were the most prominent names excluded. According to Zahra Khomeini, daughter of the republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini: “The unbelievable matter is to reject the candidacy of regime officials whose efforts are well documented, since the beginning of the revolution and till this day, in the service of the people and the revolution.”
Hassan Khomeini, Khomeini’s grandson, also criticized the Guardian Council’s decision, saying: “Were I among the eligible candidates, I would have withdrawn my candidacy.”
Two members of Khomeini’s house, a respected and sanctified figure in the pro-revolutionary street, have openly criticized the manner in which the election has been managed and hinted that they are in favor of a boycott. This position is consistent with the majority of the leadership and members of the “reformist” movement, which has had two of its most prominent leaders — former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Sheikh Mehdi Karroubi, who represented Khomeini for years on the official Hajj mission — under house arrest since 2011.
Speaking to the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Khamenei noted something important when he said: “Elections are held for one day, but their impact will continue for several years.”
This is key to understanding why Larijani and Jahangiri’s candidacies were rejected. They were the strongest rivals of current judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric who ran for president in 2017 but lost to Hassan Rouhani. The “hard-line” current does not want to see that defeat repeated because the direct interpretation would be that Raisi is unpopular among the citizens, reducing his chances of succeeding Khamenei as guardian of the Vilayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) regime, especially since his name has been proposed as a possible successor and he is supported by “fundamentalists” and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Hence, the outcome of the election, as stated by Khamenei, will have an effect for years to come because the process, beyond the choice of president, is the preparation and training ground for the 82-year-old’s successor. The supreme leader also wants the next government to be in total harmony with the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which is controlled by the hard-liners, the IRGC and his foundation, in order to make the formulation of domestic and foreign policies smoother.
The president, in this case, would not be a source of obstruction, as is currently the situation with Rouhani, who belongs to the “moderate” movement and whose foreign minister, Javad Zarif, complained, in leaked recordings published in April, about the military’s control over political decision-making and the interventions of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in the work of the Foreign Ministry. This position does not reflect the opinion of Zarif as such, but that of Rouhani’s team. Therefore, Khamenei does not want the next government to be reformist in nature so that it does not diverge with him on political issues.
What does this Iranian political landscape mean to its Gulf neighbors and how will it affect them?
The ongoing events within the institutions of the Iranian regime send the message that internal changes are taking place. These changes will not return moderates or reformists to power, but will consecrate the influence of the hard-liners, who adopt critical and even hostile speech toward a number of Arab and Gulf states. These politicians will support tougher foreign policy stances after the presidential election, especially on the subject of discussions related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, should the ongoing negotiations in Vienna not secure an agreement before the inauguration of the next president.
The incoming fundamentalist government’s policies will be based on extracting the greatest political, security and economic gains, in parallel with a tactical adjustment in its regional influence map, along with its support for militias and parties loyal to it in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. It will also seek to take advantage of its regional influence to negotiate with neighboring countries in a tougher way, contrary to Rouhani’s diplomatic approach.
Khamenei will be the “maestro” governing foreign policy, which is essentially under his authority according to the Iranian constitution. This gives him broad powers, especially since he has pointed out on numerous occasions that Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is only a policy enforcer.
The supreme leader, as solid as he is in his political positions and strict in his administration, is aware that the Iranian people have great economic needs and that there are complaints in many cities and villages. He will, therefore, seek to ease this congestion by achieving positive results in a new JCPOA agreement with the P5+1, which would ease US sanctions on the Iranian regime, giving it access to certain funds and the ability to trade and make deals with European and American companies, which would support the labor market in Iran.
In the Gulf, Khamenei may seek to ease tensions with Iran’s Arab neighbors, specifically Saudi Arabia, because a state of continuous isolation will damage Tehran’s reputation and image, which has already suffered a lot of harm. He is also well aware of Saudi Arabia’s strategic position and influence in the Arab world and beyond, depending on the extent to which Iran’s regional behavior changes.
Therefore, whether or not Raisi becomes, as expected, the next president, Khamenei will remain in control of the game and the government, parliament and IRGC will just be obedient tools for the implementation of his will.
- Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa