News / Middle East

Khamenei Wants No One to Jolt His Power in Iran Vote

Iranian supreme leader's office, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, shown in the picture at background, June 4, 2013.
Iranian supreme leader's office, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, shown in the picture at background, June 4, 2013.
Reuters
Five days from Iran's presidential election, these are nervy times for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as only the second Supreme Leader in the Islamic Republic's 34-year history answers to God and not voters.
 
The Shi'ite cleric was bruised by the protests that exploded after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election and then affronted by the unruly ambitions of the man whose win he had endorsed.
 
Now Khamenei has said he wants a high turnout on June 14 to bolster the legitimacy of the vote, while warning the eight candidates who have survived a vetting process he controls to avoid promising any concessions to the United States.
 
Among the barred challengers is former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a political heavyweight and long-time rival of Khamenei. Rafsanjani's influence has waned since Khamenei succeeded the Islamic Republic's founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as supreme leader in 1989.
 
Not even an ayatollah at the time, Khamenei has since lived in the shadow of his mentor, Khomeini. Struggling to impose his religious authority, he has instead built up a formidable security apparatus to extend his power.
 
The exclusion of high-profile candidates has dented the poll's relevance to a mainly young and restless population of 75 million. Many Iranians do not share Khamenei's ideological confrontation with the West and a nuclear policy that has incurred harsh sanctions on Iran's vital energy sectors.
 
Yet the 73-year-old leader has proved resilient in the four years since the violently suppressed post-election unrest that was the worst in the Islamic Republic's history.
 
As in 2009, Khamenei can turn to his sophisticated security structure, the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij, a paramilitary-religious force of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, to snuff out any revival of protests.
 
Although Khamenei and the IRGC say they favor no candidate, behind the scenes the security apparatus may be gearing up again to sway Iran's tightly constrained version of democracy and ensure the election of a loyal, obedient hardliner.
 
Concentrating power

“In both 2005 and 2009, the theocratic nature of the regime prevailed amidst allegations of election engineering. Security will likely trump legitimacy in 2013,” said U.S.-based Iran expert Yasmin Alem.
 
“By creating a colossal bureaucracy and establishing parallel institutions Khamenei has sought to concentrate power in his office,” she said.
 
Khamenei's influence on major policy and economic affairs starts with the 4,000 staff, all recruited from the IRGC or secret services, at his “Beit-e Rahbar”, or leader's house.
 
According to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, the Beit acts as a powerful nerve-center for an inner core of IRGC military, security and intelligence chiefs and hardline clerics in Qom.
 
Yet Khamenei remains an enigma, shunning interviews and foreign travel. His son Mojtaba controls access to him.
 
“Because Khamenei lacked Khomeini's religious credentials, he sought legitimacy in the barracks rather than the seminary,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to the new leader's links with the IRGC as it emerged from the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
 
Khamenei's official website portrays him as initially unwilling to take the job, quoting him as saying “I cried and supplicated to Allah earnestly” to spare him the responsibility.
 
Ironically it was Rafsanjani who backed him in the Assembly of Experts, the body that chose Khomeini's successor, because Khamenei, unlike senior clerics at the time, was committed to the former leader's doctrine of Velayet-e Faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, which underpins Iran's political structure.
 
Scholars abroad who have studied him paint a picture of a secretive ideologue who is deeply anti-Western, fearful of Iran's democratic institutions and paranoid about betrayal.
 
One of his childhood friends from Mashhad sounded a similar theme. “He is a conspiracy theorist and a true anti-American,” said Djavad Khadem, a minister under the ousted Shah.
 
Few Iranians had tipped Khamenei as Khomeini's heir.
 
He is “an accident of history” who went from being “a weak president to an initially weak supreme leader to one of the five most powerful Iranians of the last 100 years”, Sadjadpour said.
 
The supreme leader relies on the Vali Amr, a 10,000-strong personal security force, and wears a bullet-proof vest when appearing in public, said Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who is researching a biography of Khamenei.
 
Such heavy protection has contributed to the isolation of a man who is enormously powerful, but who is afflicted by depression and obsessive about personal security, Khalaji said.
 
Lack of trust

This concern may be understandable for a leader who lost the use of his right arm in a 1981 assassination attempt. While president from 1981-89 he suffered several political betrayals.
 
“He doesn't trust a single person,” said Khalaji. “People are connected to him but not to each other.”
 
Under Iran's constitution, the leader wields supreme command of the armed forces, has the power to declare war and appoints and dismisses senior figures including armed forces commanders, judicial heads and the head of the state media network.
 
He effectively controls the Guardian Council - the body that oversees elections and vets candidates. His office nurtures clients throughout the bureaucracy and can rely on a conservative parliament to support its decisions.
 
Foreign and nuclear policy are the domain of the supreme leader, who also controls vast funds, not least via “bonyads” or charitable foundations with a web of business interests - although the poetry-loving Khamenei is not reputed for personal greed and visitors to his residence say he lives humbly.
 
“Khamenei crippled the democratic institutions like the presidency. That's how he developed his power,” said Khalaji. “It's a conflict between the positions of leader and president.”
 
Elections for president and parliament provide legitimacy for the state and cover for the leader. If problems emerge, the government can be blamed, or, as Carnegie's Sadjadpour put it:
 
“The Supreme Leader likes being the man above the fray. He's been very effective at wielding power without accountability.”
 
Khamenei sees threats by Israel and the United States to strike Iran's nuclear sites if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute as confirming his belief that the West is bent on overthrowing the Islamic Republic's ruling system.
 
As the presidential election looms, little suggests he has changed his views since 2009 when he addressed Iranians at Friday prayers a week after Ahmadinejad's triumph and told them foreign hands lay behind the street protests shaking the nation.
 
“You see the hands of the enemy,” Khamenei declared. “The hungry wolves which lurk are slowly changing the guise of diplomacy for their real faces. See them, don't overlook them.”

You May Like

Multimedia Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests

Unlike in Arab Spring uprisings, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong aren't relying on Twitter and Facebook to organize, but social media still plays a role More

Analysis: Occupy Central Not Exactly Hong Kong’s Tiananmen

VOA's former Hong Kong, Beijing correspondent compares and contrasts 1989 Tiananmen Square protest with what is now happening in Hong Kong More

Bambari Hospital a Lone Place of Help in Violence-Plagued CAR

Only establishment still functioning in CAR's second city is main hospital More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid