The U.S. has unsuccessfully tried to undermine the Islamic Republic for decades. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is gradually doing the job himself.
Indeed, yesterday’s disqualification of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as presidential candidates is just the latest manifestation of three interrelated trends involving Khamenei’s tenure as Supreme Leader, which collectively undermine key tenets of Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. Although it is likely to persist for years and even decades to come, when the history of the Islamic Republic is finally written, these trends will be seen as crucial turning points.
The first trend is the marginalization of elections. Although Westerners tend to emphasize the Islamic component of the Islamic Republic, most Iranians hold the Republican aspect as equally important. This is evident from, among other things, the traditionally high voter turnout, from a relative low at nearly 60 percent in the 2005 presidential election, to a considerably higher figure upwards of 85 percent in 2009. Even some parliamentary elections, such as those in 2000, saw voter turnout around 80 percent. By contrast, turnout in U.S. presidential elections hasn’t topped 60 percent since 1968.
Voting was also integral to Khomeini’s concept of an Islamic Republic. Not only was there much less electroral meddling under his leadership; he also held referendums to approve the Islamic Republic and initial constitution.
Although Iran will continue to hold elections, unlike most of its neighbors, the votes are becoming much less representative of the Iranian people. This is principally a reflection of the politicization of the Guardian Council under Khamenei, a process that began almost immediately after Khamenei assumed the Supreme Leadership, when he and Rafsanjani used the Guardian Council to eliminate their rivals in the leftist Radical faction. Khamenei would later revive the tactic to undercut the Reformists and, if yesterday is any indication, has only grown more reliant on it over time. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted wryly, “[It is] increasingly looking like Iran's presidential election will be one man, one vote. That one man's name is Ayatollah Khamenei.”
The second related trend is the marginalization of the Iranian elite. Although Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers in the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) purged other anti-Shah groups, this still left a relatively diverse group of elites representing different segments of the body politic. This was deliberate. At any one time Khomeini would lend his authority to the weakest faction to protect it.
Lacking the personal authority of his predecessor, Khamenei has always been much less tolerant of different factions and, as noted above, at times has played an active role in purging them. This tendency has only accelerated since the 2009 election as Khamenei has sought to marginalize large swaths of the Reformists, Rafsanjani, and Ahmadinejad.
The primary danger in this, as any student of revolution knows, is that disillusioned elites – those who feel the system isn’t open for their participation – are a key component of successful political and social movements. The more disillusioned elites there are within a society, the more potential revolutionary leaders there are waiting in the wings. This was inherently understood by Khomeini as well as by the Communist Party of China who, under President Jiang Zemin, began opening up the party to the economic elites that Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policies had created. Iranian leaders should be troubled by the fact that their system has become open to a diminishing number of elites over time.
Besides alienating the elites themselves, their marginalization also leaves large segments of the population with the sense that they are not being represented in the political system. This is almost certainly occurring in Iran already, as the marginalization of the Reformists is likely to alienate the upper-class “Westernized” Iranians concentrated in northern Tehran, whereas fully undermining Ahmadinejad risks alienating rural and working class Iranians.
Meanwhile, Rafsanjani gave voice to parts of the business community—including some of the Bazaris—as well as certain clerics in Qom (other clerics also support the Reformists). Notably, both of these groups are already having their interests challenged by the growing economic and political clout of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Additionally, it’s not at all clear to what extent Khamenei and his inner circle benefit from these purges. Time and again the purge of one faction or group from the Islamic Republic has simply prompted the remaining groups to turn on each other. Thus, after Khamenei and Rafsanjani collaborated in ousting the Radical faction, they quickly turned to undermining each other. Similarly, no sooner had Khamenei successfully undermined the Green Party leaders and Rafsanjani in late 2010 and early 2011 that he quickly found himself locked in a bitter power struggle with Ahmadinejad.
Once the remaining conservatives and principlists are no longer united in their opposition to Ahmadinejad, subtle divisions between them are likely to become increasingly consequential. In other words, Khamenei’s dream of a pliant elite is almost certain to remain elusive, particularly if Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf emerges victorious at next month’s poll.
The third and final trend undermining the Islamic Republic is the politicization of the Supreme Leadership as an institution. Although Khomeini’s pre-revolutionary speeches and writings suggested an all-powerful Marja ruler, as Supreme Leader he tried to stay “above the fray” of day-to-day politics, or at least gave that public impression.
He was smart to do so. Politics are by nature divisive and entering the fray creates far more enemies and critics than supporters. American politics is instructive, as presidents rarely leave office as popular as they were when first elected. Similarly, the political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell find that as Christianity has taken on a greater prominence in U.S. politics since the 1970s, Americans – particularly those growing up after the 1970s – have come to hold it in less regard. The religion didn’t fundamentally change during that time, of course, but Americans began associating it with partisan politics instead of with morality or theology.
Just as America’s Founding Fathers sought to separate religion and politics to protect the sanctity of the former, Khomeini protected the Supreme Leader (and through it, the Islamic Republic) by separating himself from the elected leaders who handled day-to-day governance. Thus, when people opposed government policies and became disgusted by politics, they would direct their anger towards elected politicians instead of the Supreme Leader. This is what mostly occurred in the initial unrest following the 2009 presidential election, when the overwhelming majority of protesters demanded a new vote and Ahmadinejad’s ouster, not an overthrow of the system or Khamenei’s dismissal.
The more Khamenei reduces the autonomy of the elected leaders and intervenes directly in politics, the more he’ll have to answer to the people directly next time around.
Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat.