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

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid