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

Bleak China Economic Outlook Rattles Markets

Several key European stock indexes were down nearly three percent, while US market indexes were off around two percent in early trading More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs