Towards the end of 2009, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei began to pay frequent visits to the religious capital of Iran, Qom. At the time, many observers believed that the main purpose behind those tours, and Khamenei's meetings with influential religious figures, was a desperate attempt by the Iranian leader to maintain and strengthen his fast eroding support base among the Ayatollahs, and hence the religious community.
Although such analyses had some merit, they missed a crucial point: the key reason behind Khamenei's trips to Qom was less about his own authority, and more about the authority of Iran's next supreme leader and preparing the public for some fundamental political changes to ensure a smooth transition to the post-Khamenei era.
During his nine day tour of the western province of Kermanshah in mid-October, Ali Khamenei suggested that the post of Iran’s popularly elected president might be abolished and replaced by a premier chosen by parliament.“The current political system of the country is a good and effective system. But if one day, possibly in the distant future, it’s felt that a parliamentary system is more suited for electing those responsible for the executive branch, then there would be no problem in making changes in the system,” he said.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Initially, his comments were taken as the strongest indication so far of the ever worsening relations between the Supreme Leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With the president’s occasional attempts at bypassing the Supreme Leader since his re-election in June 2009, it was commonly asserted, Khamenei was seen as intent on empowering parliament and weakening the executive office. The reasoning was that since Iranian presidents have a popular mandate, they’ve always been in a strong position to challenge the Supreme Leader by claiming that they represent the will of the people, and that they should therefore have the final word on key foreign and domestic policy issues.
To be sure, this formula – a popularly elected president and a permanent Supreme Leader – has proven to be the most challenging structural characteristic of the Iranian political system since the inception of the presidential system in the early 1980s. Ayatollah Khomeini had problems with President Banisadr, while Khamenei has had problems, to varying degrees, with Presidents Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad.
Still, there are two key problems with this view of Khamenei’s motivations.
First, Ahmadinejad only has about 18 months left of his presidency, and he has already been seriously weakened with the threat of an embarrassing impeachment. Second, Khamenei has other means available at his disposal with which he can keep the political ambitions of presidents at bay. The Majlis (Islamic Consultative Assembly), mass media, and the security forces are all controlled by his office, and he can utilize them to marginalize future presidents – just as he has done so against all three presidents during his reign.
As such, Khamenei's support for the establishment of a parliamentary system has more to do with his, and indeed the entire clergy class’s, concerns about the ways in which a popularly elected president could challenge the future Supreme Leader than a simple concern with his own authority and political fortunes.