Manipal, India — When Iran’s Assembly of Experts chose Ali Khamenei as the country’s Supreme Leader on June 4, 1989, it was because he was seen as a "consensus" man. After a decade under Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader – a title he created to ensure that the clerics would dominate Iran – people were fatigued by the austere leader's style and his air of near infallibility.
The country had been through the cauldron of war with Iraq and was bleeding and in disarray. Earlier, as president of Iran, Khamenei had impressed many with his willingness to consult a wide range of people and to give precedence to the views of experts over those of the more impulsive clerics.
Indeed, he was not even an ayatollah – he was given the title only after Imam Khomeini passed away. Even so, several of the country's grand ayatollahs opposed the move, pointing to Khamenei's lack of significant theological contributions and to the fact that his role had been largely political.
These were ignored by the Assembly of Experts. They needed a Supreme Leader who would allow them the freedom to make the country functional again. In particular, Khomeini’s men rallied behind Khamenei, pointing out that the Imam had himself appointed Khamenei to lead Friday prayers in Tehran toward the second half of 1989.
For nearly a decade the new Supreme Leader kept a low profile, in contrast to his predecessor. He allowed the elected government a genuine say in the administration of Iran, and reined in clerics who were eager to resume the dominance they enjoyed under Grand Ayatollah Khomeini.
However, Khamenei remained committed to certain core principles, including a consistent policy of opposition toward the United States, and the refusal to allow the country's minority Sunni population the same rights enjoyed by the majority Shiites.
It was Khamenei who rejected former President Mohammad Khatami's plan to build a Sunni mosque in Tehran; he saw the city as the redoubt of Shiite Islam. He has also been uncompromising in his advocacy of the destruction of Israel, and has given significant backing to armed groups throughout the region that target Israel.
The current Supreme Leader of Iran has a grim view of the world. He sees a range of countries implacably opposed to Iran; facing such enemies calls for a high degree of internal police control to maintain unity and prevent chaos.
It was the shocking victory of a moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami, in the 1997 presidential elections that brought the Supreme Leader out of the shadows and onto the center stage of policy. He repeatedly applied the brakes on Khatami's ambitious plans for internal reform, including granting more rights to religious minorities and women.
Using the limitless powers available to him, Khamenei ensured that powerful segments within the bureaucracy rebuffed Khatami's efforts to create a diplomatic opening to the West. Although the modern mercantile class in Iran was in favor of such a change in stance – and remains so – the immense network of state companies had grown comfortable in their regulation-created profits and feared competition from outside.
Then and now, this government-industrial bureaucracy enjoys the patronage of Khamenei, who has thus far prevented any serious reform of the unwieldy and corrupt superstructure that acts as a drain on the country with its high costs and poor record of delivery.
Aware that continuing this situation would condemn Iran to perpetual economic stagnation, some of the country's younger professionals are in favor of reforms, including better relations with the West and backing away from confrontation over the nuclear program.
It was the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2004 elections that allowed Khamenei to come into his own. Although many speak of the younger man as the more dominant of the pair, in reality Ahmadinejad has been content to serve as Khamenei's enforcer and spokesperson, repeating the hard-line rhetoric that is a staple of the Supreme Leader's worldview.
From 2004, the last internal checks to "Khameneism" disappeared. Since then the Khamenei men have begun to assert themselves over the groups that owed their rise to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, the once all-powerful Imam Khomeini has been all but ritually forgotten in official Iran, where the only voice that counts is that of Khamenei and those personally loyal to him – most for reasons of expediency.
The government-industrial complex has agreed to subordinate itself to the clerical group surrounding Khamenei, with the result that efficiency has plunged even farther than in 2004. Today, the Iranian state system is unable to deliver the reasonable essentials of life, forcing the majority of the population to rely on their own meager resources for sustenance. Many of the welfare projects touted by Ahmadinejad exist only in state media; their delivery is patchy at best and often non-existent.
It is small wonder that the country is seething. Interestingly, the lead in the current protests against the results of the recent presidential elections has been taken by followers of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, who have pitted themselves against the Khameini men.
The fierce repression now witnessed in Iran indicates that the Khameini team has launched an all-out war against Khomeini loyalists opposing Ahmadinejad. If they succeed in extinguishing the protests, Khamenei will acquire the same power that Khomeini had during his decade in power – 1979-1989.
However, aware that the crackdown is being conducted on behalf of a dysfunctional setup, several tens of thousands of people, including some in the security system, are reluctant to use the force demanded of them. The already frayed links between the Khomeini people and Khamenei have broken down and ultimately, the superior numbers of the former can be expected to prevail in the contest of wills now being played out across Iran. Indeed, the crackdown is daily creating not just martyrs but activists, ensuring the formation of a coalition that will make business as usual impossible in Iran until justice is done.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stands ready to carry out the wishes of the Supreme Leader, aware that he owes both his 2004 and his 2009 victories to him. But Khamenei may find that in protecting Ahmadinejad, he has put at risk not just his legacy but his title.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)