Khamenei-fetishism and the mischaracterization of Iran’s politics

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s politics is a topic which has absorbed a part of American journalists’, scholars’ and policy-makers’ attention for the last three decades. Yet the American main-stream media discourse on Iranian politics today is characterized by tropes which bring us no closer to understanding what is happening in this strategic Middle Eastern country. One example of this is a recent piece by Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specializing in Iran, for the Washington Post entitled “The rise and fall of Iran’s Ahmadinejad”. This article echoes the myth of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s centrality in Iran’s political system and prematurely declares President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fall.

The article does not scratch beyond the surface, but repeats what we’ve come to expect:

“Reformists and pragmatists argued that ensuring the Islamic Republic’s survival required easing political and social restrictions and prioritizing economic expediency over ideology. Hard-liners, led by Khamenei, believed that compromising on revolutionary ideals could unravel the system, just as perestroika did the Soviet Union.”

“Reformists” and “pragmatists” are labelled according to their proper factional titles in Persian, which on the one hand conveys their moderation while at the same time summarizing their political positions. The usulgarayan or Principalists faction on the other hand are called “hardliners”, a name which gives a sense of uncompromising sternness without revealing much about what they actually stand for. The author then focuses on the Principalists’ discourse on “revolutionary ideals”. What is perhaps ironically forgotten here is that Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami and other leading Reformists themselves emphasize “revolutionary ideals” in their speeches, quoting the leader of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini almost incessantly. It is easily forgotten that they were among Khomeini’s most ardent disciples, referring to the period of his rule in 1979-1989 as the “Imam’s golden-era”, strongly advocated anti-imperialism and were responsible for the US hostage crisis. Furthermore, leading Reformists like Ali-Akbar Mohtashamipur, Mousavi’s representative at the Ministry of Interior during the 2009 presidential elections, were instrumental in founding Hezbollah, continue to be among its most ardent supporters and take a strong anti-Israeli stance, belying their perceived moderation. The list goes on, but the point is that the gap between Reformists and Principalists in terms of being “ideological” and dedicated to the principles of the revolution is far smaller than is often presented.

These inaccurate caricatures become especially egregious when the author discusses Ahmadinejad, who in the very first paragraph is called a demagogue, Holocaust revisionist and “…the dispensable sword of Iran’s supreme leader”. What is conveniently forgotten is that Ahmadinejad is less beholden to the regime’s ideology than the Reformists, and has been an advocate of changes as much as they, albeit in a different mould. His speeches are replete with calls for easing social restrictions and prioritizing economic expediency. In fact it can be argued that Ahmadinejad’s track-record of attempting changes is comparable if not more far-reaching than Khatami’s, including subsidy-reform, privatization of state companies, curtailing the role of the clergy in politics and more. What may perhaps be even be more surprising to some readers is that Ahmadinejad is a proponent of engagement with the United States and key individuals within his administration are viewed by many Principalists as being dangerously moderate on the issue of Israel. Most impressively, he is the only president since Abolhassan Bani-Sadr to have challenged the supreme leader in a public way.

Yet Mr. Sadjadpour describes him as “…the dispensable sword of Iran’s supreme leader”. Throughout the article he builds-up the myth of Khamenei, portraying him as the Machiavellian maestro at the heart of the Islamic Republic. This “Khamenei fetishism” fundamentally misconstrues the true nature of Iran’s political economy and the relationship between Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and the most important force in Iran today, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which is largely neglected in the article.

The source of the fetishism comes from a very institutional approach to analyzing Iranian politics, which gives primacy to Khamenei because the constitutional formally grants his office vast powers, a notion which is supported by the fact that all public officials, in one way or another, pay lip-service to him. The question which is not adequately addressed is the true source his power. It is implied that it is the blind ideological fanaticism of the Principalists, but on closer inspection “ideology” alone is a poor explanation of the organic functioning of power especially for a serious political analyst.

The myth of Khamenei masks the vast, social, political, economic and security complex that underlies the façade of the supreme leader. Although it can be argued that he is to some degree an independent political actor, his actual role in Iran’s system is closer to a symbolic monarch that is much more the veneer of the system than its substance. Especially since the contested 2009 Iranian presidential elections, it has been revealed that much more than ideological legitimacy and the balancing of various political actors, the core of Khamenei’s power derives from the vast complex of the IRGC, the true power behind the throne. Not only do they now dominate Iran’s security apparatus, but they have also systematically penetrated Iran’s most strategic economic sectors including oil, gas and infrastructure.

A similar logic is applied to Ahmadineajd, although here Mr. Sadjadpour at least attempts a political-economy explanation. He portrays his power as deriving from Khamenei on the one hand and “the working classes” on the other. The latter notion is brought up once and not explained any further, but implies that Ahmadinejad’s power is at least in part a result of populist policies toward the baser classes. While some workers as individuals may have voted for Ahmadinejad, the working class as a body has resisted Ahmadinejad’s policies and suffered a great deal as a result. Furthermore, the main leaders of the workers movement such as Mansour Osanloo, Ebrahim Madadi and Reza Shahabi have all been brutally attacked and imprisoned during his presidency, and workers as a whole have been largely unable to form independent unions meaning that the working classes have been unable to express themselves as a political force. During the disputed 2009 elections it was not workers who came out in support of Ahmadinejad but, like Khamenei, the IRGC.

This brings us to the largely apocryphal conflict between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Mr. Sadjadpour claims that the supreme leader “…unleashed jackals that had long been salivating for the president’s comeuppance”, naming the IRGC as one such jackal in the very next sentence. This completely ignores the true nature of the relationship between Ahmadinejad and the Guards. Without a doubt, aside from Khamenei, the president has been the single greatest facilitator of the IRGC’s power, giving them billions in lucrative no-bid government contracts and placing leading members in key positions in the bureaucracy. This includes the nomination of the ex-commander of the Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters (the Guards’ economic arm), General Rostam Qasemi as the next oil minister. The more likely source of the current spat is the Principalists, who increasingly senses a threat from Neo-Principalists (Ahmadinejad and his circle) and have expressed their unease about the rapid changes Iran is undergoing via the supreme leader and IRGC.

There is a symbiotic relationship between Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the IRGC, but it is not a far-fetched notion to argue that the IRGC is now the senior partner in this triangle. To turn Mr. Sadjadpour’s phrase on its head, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are the dispensable swords of the IRGC.