Tehran Politics: Are the Mullahs Losing Their Grip?

“You are not a wise man, you tyrant,” raps the Iranian female singer Bahar. “Why do your clothes smell like blood? . . . Why do you crush this cry for justice? The people don’t deserve such disdain.” Her chiding words against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei go to the heart of the problem that the Islamic Republic faces: the growing illegitimacy of a cruel and inaccessible theocracy whose control over Iran might well be slipping.

Throughout Iran’s history, political power has clustered around strongmen—often shahs or kings until the Islamic revolution of 1979—rather than institutions. So not surprisingly, the most serious challenge to Iran’s post-revolutionary system of theocratic government, known as velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, has also arisen from a politician at the center of the executive branch of national politics. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is best known to the world as a Holocaust-denying anti-Semite given to apocalyptic threats and bombast, but despite this somewhat grotesque international image, he still is viewed internally as an astute, successfully manipulative politician with a sure populist touch. His reelection to a second term in office was engineered by his appointees in the Interior Ministry, then endorsed by the theocratic Guardian Council and confirmed by Supreme Leader Khamenei after the clergy recognized the fait accompli. As attention among protesters shifted away from the fraud involved with his reelection to the far more central issues of why Iran needs a supreme leader and other clergymen running the state, Ahmadinejad and his appointees have capitalized on the public challenge to the theocratic center by wresting away more power and independence.

As the executive center’s authority has grown, the president and his supporters have come to believe that the “period of religious politics will soon be over” (in the words of Ahmadinejad’s controversial and secularist chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei), leading them to hazard acts of increasing independence from the theocrats in both domestic and foreign affairs. In August 2011, Ahmadinejad even got his way with reorganizing government ministries and appointing allies to key ministerial posts after the theocrats, finding their “edicts unheeded,” and parliamentarians, finding their “debate stifled,” abandoned opposition to those actions. The president also named Brigadier General Rostam Ghasemi—target of international sanctions yet still head of the influential economic wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—as minister of petroleum, laying the groundwork for his confidant’s appointment shortly thereafter as the head of OPEC.

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Members of the executive branch are remarkably candid about the widening rift between themselves as nationalist reformers and the religious fundamentalists they seek to displace. They are increasingly confident of long-term success because they know the extent to which the public seeks large-scale change. The president’s followers even question, as does the public, why Iran needs a theocratic system of government. Not surprisingly, as these signs of independence multiply, the fundamentalist mullahs have fought back, denouncing their onetime political operatives in the executive branch as “deviants” and a “perverted current” who seek to dismiss the supreme leader and end the Islamic Republic through bureaucratic maneuvers and legislative changes.

Thus, the theocrats moved to prevent the election of the president’s supporters in the recent parliamentary elections of March 2012. Only seven hundred reformists and regime opponents were permitted to register among the fifty-two hundred candidates for two hundred and ninety seats in the Iranian Parliament, or Majles. Subsequently, the Guardian Council, which oversees all elections, began to systematically cull those registrants by annulling the candidacies of anyone harboring notions of sociopolitical reform. Several dozen parliamentarians, too, were not allowed back onto the ballot for having not followed the supreme leader’s wishes in lockstep. Grounds for disqualification included allegations of “not believing in Islam,” “not being a practitioner of Islam,” “not being loyal to the Constitution,” and most importantly from the fundamentalists’ perspective, “not being loyal to the velayat-e faqih.”

When the official results were announced, the ayatollahs’ supporters held on to the largest bloc (though not a majority) of parliamentary seats—and will now try to use that legislative center of power to thwart the executive branch’s reforms. This outcome sits well with hard-liners in the Majles who, like Khamenei, seek to amend Iran’s Constitution so the executive branch can be eliminated. President Ahmadinejad responded quickly by setting up a council charged with ensuring the Constitution is followed closely. When summoned for questioning by parliamentarians, Ahmadinejad even ridiculed his legislative foes and their questions during the televised proceedings: “Those who designed these questions were from among those who got a master’s degree by just pushing a button.”


On the surface, the rule of the mullahs would appear ironclad and beyond challenge. Iran’s Constitution grants overriding authority to a Shiite clergyman who is appointed as rahbar, or supreme leader, over the country’s citizens and their politics, cultures, faiths, economy, domestic and foreign policies, and armed forces. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is only the second to hold that lifetime office; his predecessor and model was Iran’s revolutionary leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. During Khomeini’s rule, Khamenei served as deputy minister of defense and as clerical representative to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Next, with Khomeini’s endorsement, he was elected to two terms as Iran’s president.

As an extreme hard-liner, even among fundamentalists, Khamenei was not the foremost candidate to replace the deceased Khomeini as supreme leader in 1989. Yet when other aspirants failed to receive sufficient support among the Shiite clerics in the Assembly of Experts, the theocracy turned to Khamenei. Thus Khamenei came to head the velayat-e faqih. Like his former mentor, the current supreme leader holds to the religio-political tenet that “it is necessary that regulation of government by Islam be maintained in order to prevent anarchy” and so sees “the rule of divine will over humanity” occurring through his office and himself as Allah’s representative on earth.

Khamenei has proved to be a shrewd politician by playing members of the Assembly against each other. So when former two-time president and Assembly chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani canvassed other members to remove Khamenei from the supreme leadership in the wake of mass protests in 2009, not only was the supreme leader able to thwart those maneuvers but he struck back by instigating other fundamentalists into withdrawing support for Rafsanjani’s chairmanship. Consequently, in March 2011, Rafsanjani was replaced by a loyalist who would uphold the institution of velayat-e faqih with Khamenei as its rahbar. Other dissident clerics have been even less fortunate—Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri spent many years under house arrest until his death in 2009.

As supreme leader, Khamenei has adamantly affirmed that he “will not accept meddling” by anyone in his decisions on affairs of state. His ally, the octogenarian Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, ensures that the Assembly of Experts, which he now chairs, is politically passive—no longer questioning Khamenei’s edicts. Furthermore, all differences between the executive and legislative branches of government must be mediated through the Expediency Discernment Council, whose twenty-eight members are all appointed by the supreme leader, rendering that organization an agent of the theocracy rather than the people. So this Expediency Council also reinforces clerical hold on power under the leadership of a now subdued Ayatollah Rafsanjani.

The theocrats also control another constitutional entity—the Council of Guardians, which validates electoral candidates before elections and results afterward. The power-broking Guardian Council comprises twelve Islamic jurists and scholars, all of whom are appointed by the supreme leader and the Parliament rather than elected. During Khamenei’s reign, the Guardian Council has been chaired by another octogenarian fundamentalist, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a close revolutionary ally of Khamenei, who publicly denounces those who seek any liberalization as “heretics who should not be permitted to participate in politics,” even calling for their “execution as enemies of God.” Under Jannati’s supervision, and in accord with Khamenei’s wishes, the Guardian Council intervenes routinely and unhesitantly to ensure that representational political change does not affect the Islamic system.

Steadily, like Khomeini before him, Khamenei has fashioned a clique of clerics, politicians, and officers hostile to plurality, moderation, and fundamental rights. Working through those loyalists, the other hard-line ayatollahs under Khamenei manipulate governmental processes to thwart reform.


Central to fundamentalist clergymen’s ability to smother populist aspirations has been Iran’s armed forces. When Khomeini established Iran’s Islamic Constitution in 1979, he ensured that final say over the armed forces—the regular military (Artesh), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Pasdaran), and the despised paramilitary (Basij)—lay with the supreme leader’s office. Additionally, to ensure conformity with the theocratic center’s wishes, each division of the armed forces is overseen politically and ideologically by a special representative from the supreme leader. Commanders are promoted and retired by the supreme leader and his advisers. Drawing upon both constitutional authority and personal ties from when he served as special representative to them, Khamenei has strengthened alliances with militant commanders, especially within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in the hope that all opposition to his authority will continue to be suppressed—as it was during the protests of 2009.

Comprising an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers, the Revolutionary Guard is the best trained, equipped, and funded of Iran’s military forces. But it could also pose a serious threat to the ayatollahs’ hold on power. Whereas IRGC generals owe their positions to the supreme leader, and declare that preserving the Islamic government “is more vital than performing daily prayers,” IRGC rank-and-file increasingly see few benefits from supporting a theocratic state. Moreover, in recent years the organization has been diversifying and expanding its own influence. Steadily using connections to Iran’s presidency to acquire major financial stakes in important industrial sectors as they are privatized—including oil and gas, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture—it has become an independent center of power steadily slipping outside the control of the theocracy. Even former presidential hopeful Mohsen Rezai, despite having served as an IRGC commander prior to entering politics, senses this growing danger to the political system and so opposes the military’s economic activities.

The annual operational budget of the Basij paramilitary, which in 2009 became the face of Iranian repression after cell-phone videos showed its troops brutalizing democracy activists demonstrating against a fraudulent election, is funded not only by the state but also by corporations owned by the paramilitary itself. Supporting at least one million volunteers, its budget has grown to approximately $150 billion (US dollars), which means that the Basij controls a substantial share of revenue and manpower in the Islamic Republic. President Ahmadinejad himself was an influential Basij organizer while a university student in Tehran, before going on to serve in the IRGC’s 6th Special Operations Unit.


Heading into the March 2012 parliamentary elections, reform-seekers both in and outside the current regime hoped to take control of the Majles through popular election. According to Iran’s Islamic Constitution, however, all two hundred and ninety candidates for election to the unicameral Parliament had to be screened by the Guardian Council for conformity to fundamentalist Islamic mores. As a result, the ayatollahs also were able to thwart reformist endeavors to take over Iran’s legislative center through determining who could or could not compete. The ayatollahs have also kept two important reform leaders, who were also 2009 presidential candidates, under house arrest since early 2011. Thus, Mir Hussein Mousavi, former prime minister and founder of the Green Path of Hope party (popularly known as the Green Movement), and Mehdi Karroubi, former Parliament speaker and founder of the National Trust Party, were barred from politics during the March elections.

For now, the theocratic branch has continued to receive considerable support from the country’s Islamic judges. The judiciary, whose members must, by law, all be Muslim clergymen, is headed by Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, who previously held an eight-year term on the Guardian Council as a result of an appointment by Khamenei. Hailing from a long line of fundamentalist ayatollahs, his political ties also extend into the Majles through a brother, Ali Larijani, who has served as its speaker. Despite that connection that Ayatollah Larijani exploits when necessary, Iran’s chief justice is on record as ruling that the Islamic government “does not derive legitimacy from popular franchise.” Rather, he ensures that the judiciary’s view of politics lines up with that of the theocratic bloc: “We must maintain a society based on Islam, in which Islam’s values are propagated, in which every Quranic injunction and teaching of the Prophet [Muhammad] and of the Imams are implemented. Iran must have a society in which people do not demand their rights but are conscious of their obligations to God.”

Moreover, under Larijani, the judiciary has worked with the supreme leader’s office and the Guardian Council to stifle the executive branch’s attempt at crafting an imperial presidency. The judicial branch’s actions are directed, as well, at placing blame for the gross violation of human rights since June 2009 on the presidency and civil bureaucracy. Yet Iranian politics is famous for nepotism and, as their own authority grows, the Larijani brothers may make their own play for political supremacy at the theocratic center’s expense.

But shaping legislative election results and populating the judiciary with clergymen has not granted the ayatollahs much peace of mind. Khamenei, Jannati, and other fundamentalist clergymen realize as well as Ahmadinejad that the appeal of Islamist ideology is waning among Iran’s masses. The clergy senses that its loss of political authority may be close at hand—either through an executive branch pruning of the velayat-e faqih or a popular revolt akin to one attempted in 2009, which the rank-and-file of the military would this time decide not to quash. So the ayatollahs have redoubled their denunciations of political parties that seek to reform the political system, as well as Ahmadinejad’s supporters who wish to transform it from within and the youth who desire to excise it completely, as “a triangle of seditionists, deviationists, and counter-revolutionaries,” all of whom need to be “neutralized.”

The ayatollahs and their fundamentalist cohorts in the Parliament, judiciary, and Revolutionary Guard high command continue trying to come up with ways to stymie the executive and reformist centers of Iran’s polity on the international front too. The assassination plots against Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US and Israeli diplomats in Tbilisi, New Delhi, and Bangkok reflect one such tactic contrived to further harm bilateral and multilateral relations. Threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz is another. It is not far-fetched either to see fundamentalists yearning for military confrontation with the US or Israel. Khamenei’s supporters figure such a clash will boost their sagging legitimacy by compelling Iranians to rally around the flag. It also will give the supreme leader an excuse to summarily silence all dissent under the guise of national unity.

Despite such fantasies on the part of the mullahs for conditions under which they could continue to maintain absolute power, Iran’s current branches of government are unified by alliances of convenience that persist only as long as they benefit the individuals and groups involved. The enlarging cracks in the monolith built by Ayatollah Khomeini more than three decades ago have given the Iranian public hope that despite all of the regime’s machinations, political transformation can indeed produce a truly representational and secular form of government. Iranians increasingly believe that another revolution may not be required to produce a change in government, but rather that the transition might be accomplished by a major reformation of the existing system, one that would keep Iran as an Islamic republic but move it away from Islamic totalitarianism. Hopeful and resilient, Iranians watch the developments in Tehran and send tweets such as: “We are watching and waiting; the time for change will come” and, in reference to the brutal tactic of running over street protesters, “Eventually they will run out of cars!”

Jamsheed K. Choksy is a professor of Iranian studies, former director of the Middle Eastern studies program, and a senior fellow of the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University.


Photo Credit: Foundation of Holy Defence Values, Archives and Publications

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