Ayatollah Khamenei backs the Guardian Council in its dispute with Rouhani

In a speech on Wednesday 09 September 2015, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei discussed the the prospects of negotiations on other issues with the United States and also injected himself into a dispute between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and senior conservative politicians, potentially setting the tone of Iran’s foreign policy and domestic politics for the coming months.

Relations with the United States

Rapprochement and reconciliation between states is often a matter of putting the past in the rearview mirror and letting bygones be bygones. But Ayatollah Khamenei called on Iranian youth in his Wednesday address to remember crimes against Iran which he held the United States, directly or indirectly, responsible for, including: The killing of Iranian demonstrators by the Pahlavi regime on 17 Shahrivar 1357 (1978); Saddam’s invasion of Iran in Shahrivar 1359 (1980); and the assassination of then President Mohammad-Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar by an Iranian opposition group. He declared that:

“Our youth must not forget these memories. One of the things which I am worried about is that this growing young generation of ours…will forget these great lessons of our contemporary era…these incidents must not become worn out. A nation’s historical memory must not be weakened. If our youth all across the country do not know these incidents, do not analyze, do not go in-depth, they will make errors in knowing their country and knowing the future.”

He reminded his audience that the founder of the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had labelled the United States as the “Great Satan” and that revolutionary students had occupied the the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which he called the “America’s House of Spies”, expelling the global superpower: “The great nation of Iran expelled this Great Satan from the country. We must not allow it to return. We must not allow to come back in from the window when it was kicked out by the door. We must not allow it infiltrate. Their enmity does not end.”

Since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations with the United States, Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly warned against American penetration of Iran’s society, politics, and economy, a theme echoed by other senior conservative Iranian politicians.

In this context, he emphasised that the nuclear negotiations were an exception in U.S.-Iran relations and that there would be no negotiations with the United States on other topics:

“They [the United States] are after a thing called negotiations with Iran. But negotiations are an excuse, negotiations are an instrument for infiltration, negotiations are an instrument for imposing their demands. We only agreed for [our negotiators] to go negotiate on the nuclear issue for the specific reasons that we have frequently mentioned. Well, they negotiated. Thanks God, our negotiators presented themselves well in this field. But in other fields we have not given permission to negotiate and we don’t negotiate with America. We negotiate with all of the world, but not with America…And of course the Zionist regime is left alone in its place because the essence of the Zionist Regime is an illegitimate existence and false government.”

Lastly, he touched on what he claimed were comments by Israeli officials that the nuclear deal meant that Israel could rest assured about Iran for the next quarter century. Scoffing at such a notion, he asserted:

“I say in response: First you shall not see the next 25 years. God willing 25 years from now…a Zionist Regime will not exist in the region. Second, and in the meantime, epic, combattant and Jihadi Islamic spirit will not leave the Zionists alone for a moment.”

His comments appear aimed at reassuring his conservative base on the continuity of Iran’s anti-American and anti-Zionist policies in the post-deal era, belying the notion that the deal entails negotiations with the United States on other issues and even rapprochement.  

The role of the Guardian Council in elections

Ayatollah Khamenei also weighed in on an ongoing dispute between Rouhani and senior conservative politicians, giving comments which appear to undermine the Iranian president’s position. He criticized those who questioned the fairness of Iran’s elections, saying:

“Unfortunately one of the bad habits that some in the country have is that they constantly question the health of elections. They frequently argue before the elections about fraud, concerns, that this or that will happen. This is a wrong.”

He specifically addressed President Hassan Rouhani’s claim that the Council of Guardians (CoG) plays an observer rather than executive role in elections. The CoG plays a variety of roles under Iran’s Constitution, including vetting presidential, parliamentary and Assembly of Experts candidates as well as legislation to ensure they are compatible with Islamic criteria. The six Shi’a jurists on the CoG are appointed by the supreme leader, while the six lawyers on the body are nominated by the head of the judiciary and approved by parliament. Ayatollah Khamenei remarked:

“The Guardian Council is the seeing eye of the regime. In all of the world something like this exists – it may be called something else, here it is the Council of Guardians – they are careful to see that the person who enters the elections field, becomes an election candidate, is qualified or not and must approve their qualification. If they see there has been shortcomings and a person who is not qualified has entered, they will block him. This is their right, their legal right, their rational and logical right. Some uselessly complain. Part of the Hagh al-Nas [the people’s’ rights] is the very same right to vote of the Council of Guardians. The very estesvabi [proactive] and effective supervision of the Council of Guardians. This is part of Hagh al-Nas, this must be respected and preserved.”

In what has become a characteristic of his leadership, Ayatollah Khamenei also balanced out these statements through comments potentially targeted at assuaging the moderate (reformist-centrist) part of the Iranian political spectrum:

“The vote of the people in the real sense of the word is Hagh al-Nas. It is a Hagh al-Nas. When an Iranian brother and sister come and participate in the election and cast a voting ballot, respecting their vote is obligatory according to Shar’ia. It is an Islamic obligation. We must not betray this trust. It is really Hagh al-Nas.”

There is some controversy in Iran over the role of the CoG in vetting election candidates. The moderate political current in Iran sees the CoG’s role as being primarily reactive. Moderates would claim that the CoG’s role mainly includes sending the names of candidates to determine if they lack qualification to the quartet of reference points which is composed of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the police, Ministry of Justice, and Civil Registration Organisation.

The conservative political current in Iran, however, sees the CoG’s role as being proactive (estesvabi). If the quartet of reference points do not determine that a candidate lacks qualification, conservatives would argue that the CoG must then discuss each candidate and determine if they possess qualification. This interpretation effectively gives the CoG the last word on whether a candidate can participate in elections or not.

The difference between the moderate and conservative positions run on a distinction which can make a majour difference come election time. And Ayatollah Khamenei, by re-emphaising his position on the matter, has decisively backed the conservative position with this speech. Will a large-scale disqualification of pro-Rouhani and independent election candidates ensue? Unlike foreign policy, where President Rouhani was able to get a ‘win’ in nuclear negotiations, on domestic politics he and his allies seem to face an uphill battle in advancing their agenda.