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Khamenei Moves to Regain Grip on Absolute Power

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

27 Jul 2011 20:48Comments
318700_13img9.JPG[ overview ] Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has added another organ to Iran's already convoluted power structure.

The ostensible mission of the new chamber, the Supreme Council for Resolving the Differences Between the Three Branches [of government], led by Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (pictured), is to mitigate the friction produced by the escalating confrontation pitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters against Khamenei and his allies. But like everything else Khamenei has done during his 22-year reign, the official reason given for the formation of the new council does not explain the real motivation behind the action. It is, in fact, meant to shield Khamenei and his absolute power against Ahmadinejad and his unpredictable behavior. To understand this, some background information is useful.


A well-known fact about the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is that it is replete with contradictions. Among these, the most flagrant can be found in Chapter 3, where Articles 19-42 call for the respect of people's fundamental rights, while Articles 57 and 110 bestow absolute power upon the Supreme Leader, or Vali-ye Faghih. Thus, in theory, people get to elect the president and their representatives to the Majles, as long as their choices are to the liking of the absolute ruler and obedient to him.

The Supreme Leader also appoints the judiciary chief and must certify the election of the president. The only election the Supreme Leader is not supposed to directly have a say in is for the head of the legislative branch. But over time, that has increasingly come under the control of the Supreme Leader as well. As Majles deputy Ali Motahari recently put it, "The Majles has become a branch of the office of the Supreme Leader."

The result of such fundamental contradictions is paralysis in the political system, which periodically becomes glaring. The paralysis was already clear in the early days of the Revolution, when there was considerable infighting between the Islamic leftists and rightists. The leftists, called the Followers of the Imam's Line after the students who overran the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979, had the upper hand. They were supported implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called "the Imam" by his supporters. As I've previously described, the rightists were opposed to Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, in particular his economic program. As a result, infighting would periodically erupt over Mousavi's policies, appointments, and even his own post. Because Khomeini was supportive of the left, the Supreme Leader of the land, and highly charismatic, the rightists had to cope by dividing his instructions and opinions into two categories: molavi and ershadi. The first referred to those declarations that had to be obeyed, the second to those that could be considered personal advice, which the rightists claimed they were not obliged to follow. This classification was, of course, contrary to the ideology of the rightists who have always been ardent proponents of Velaayat-e Faghih, the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader.

Expediency Discernment Council

The infighting in the first decade of the Revolution finally forced Khomeini to order the establishment of the Majma Tashkhis-e Maslahat-e Nezaam, the Expediency Discernment Council, on February 7, 1988.

The council's main task was to arbitrate over differences between the Majles, in which the leftists were in the majority, and the Guardian Council, in which conservatives, such as Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani and Ahmad Jannati, held sway. Its members comprise two groups: Those appointed directly by the Supreme Leader, and those who are members because of positions they hold in the power hierarchy, including the six clerics of the Guardian Council, the Majles speaker, the judiciary chief, and the president. Another task of the council is to provide the Supreme Leader with advice on important national issues. When the Constitution was revised in July 1989, the council officially became a constitutional body. But the same revised Constitution also transferred some of the authorities of the president to the Supreme Leader, and stipulated that the rule of the Supreme Leader is absolute: Velaayat-e Motlagheh Faghih. Instead of solving any problems, the revisions exacerbated the conflicting interests.

During the two administrations of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the conflicts largely remained below the surface. After all, Rafsanjani had helped arrange for the Assembly of Experts to appoint Khamenei as Supreme Leader -- a post for which he was utterly unqualified, according to the stipulations of the Constitution -- and the two men were close friends of many decades. Khamenei was relying on the rightists to consolidate his power, and Rafsanjani was no leftist or even centrist. Even when in the 1992 elections for the Fourth Majles the Guardian Council used the vetting power for the first time and disqualified en masse leftist and relatively liberal candidates, opening the way for the ultra-conservative Islamic Coalition Party to take control of the Majles and forcing Rafsanjani to replace many of his ministers, the power structure appeared to work relatively well. There was no longer any talk of the molavi versus ershadi opinions of the Supreme Leader. Everything was to the rightists' liking.

The landslide election of reformist Mohammad Khatami on May 23, 1997, disturbed that "harmony." Khamenei's candidate, then Majles Speaker Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, lost the election, badly. Khatami and Ataollah Mohajerani, his minister of culture and Islamic Guidance, oversaw a period in which the press was relatively free, allowing for revelations of past crimes. The Chain Murders, masterminded by former Deputy Intelligence Minister Saeed Emami and presumably blessed by higher-ups in the power hierarchy, which were supposed to stem the tide of new thinking and dissent, actually backfired and led to more revelations by investigative journalists Akbar Ganji and Emadeddin Baghi, both of whom were jailed in reaction.

The situation got worse in February 2000 when the reformists swept the elections for the Sixth Majles. One hundred and forty-five candidates of the newly formed Islamic Iran Participation Front, led by Khatami's younger brother, Dr. Mohammad Reza Khatami, were elected along with dozens of other independent and reformist candidates.

Khamenei reacted angrily to the reformists' landslide victory and ordered the closure of the reformist press in April 2000. Over the course of two days, 16 outstanding newspapers and weeklies were shuttered, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of the newly elected Majles deputies, who had yet to have their first session together.

Hokm-e hokoomati

When the Sixth Majles finally convened in August 2000, the first order of business was to change the draconian press law that the conservative-dominated Fifth Majles had passed in its waning days just a month earlier. A bill was put forward to return the press law to the less restrictive 1985 version. The bill was opposed by Khamenei and the hardliners. When behind-the-scenes maneuvers failed to obstruct its passage, Khamenei came out with an order that introduced a new phrase to Iran's political parlance, hokm-e hokoomati, which means an extralegal decree by the Supreme Leader. Fars, the news agency run by the intelligence unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has tried to justify hokm-e hokoomati and divine a history for it going back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. But the phrase was actually coined by Mehdi Karroubi, who had just been elected as the Majles speaker.

Khamenei ordered the bill to be set aside and an end to any debate about it. The Majles held a session behind close doors in which Karroubi read Khamenei's letter and referred to it as "hokm-e hokoomati." When the public session of the Majles began, the deputies began protesting Khamenei's order. Karroubi tried to justify it by invoking Article 110 of the Constitution, and even went so far as to say that the deputies' protest was against the Constitution. A huge mob organized by the hardliners gathered outside the Majles building, ready to swoop in and take over if the parliament proceeded to vote on the bill. Journalist Rajabali Mazrouei, a deputy at the time, had a heated discussion with Karroubi. But Karroubi resisted the pressure and exercised his power as speaker to set aside the bill. As outspoken reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh, who as deputy interior minister for political affairs had supervised the elections for the Sixth Majles, put it, "If the [Supreme Leader's] powers are to be absolute, why did we even draft a Constitution?" (Tajzadeh has been imprisoned since immediately after the June 2009 presidential election.) Since then, every attempt to modify the press law has been blocked by the Guardian Council, which invokes Khamenei's hokm-e hokoomati as justification.

Even before his hokm-e hokoomati regarding the press law, Khamanei had actually issued another one, although it was not referred to as such. This was in April 2000, concerning an impasse between the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council. The council was trying to cancel the Majles elections for Tehran and hold a new vote, because not a single conservative candidate had been elected. Led by Tajzadeh, the Interior Ministry resisted the council, and Tajzadeh took Jannati, the council's secretary-general, to court for nullifying 700,000 votes in Tehran without any justification. Khamenei was then forced to issue a hokm-e hokoomati ordering the council not to cancel the elections.

Years later, when in the 2005 presidential elections the hardliners manipulated the votes in the first round to put Ahmadinejad ahead of Karroubi, the latter finally recognized the monster that he had helped create. He strongly protested the intervention in the election by Khamenei's son Mojtaba. Since then Karroubi has consistently opposed hokm-e hokoomati and the absolute power of the Supreme Leader.

Khamenei used hokm-e hokoomati thrice more during the Khatami era. First was in 2001 right after Khatami won his second term in another larger landslide. The Majles was supposed to vote on three nonclerical members of the Guardian Council, who by law must be nominated by the judiciary chief. Then judiciary chief Ayatollah Shahroudi nominated six candidates for the three spots. They were all rightist and reactionary. In one case, the candidate was only a law student, yet nominated to be a member of a powerful organ of the country that interprets the Constitution. The reformist Majles turned all of them down. One nominee, Gholam Hossein Elham, who is now an adviser to Ahmadinejad, received only three votes; even the rightist minority did not vote for him. By law, candidates must receive the votes of 60 percent of the deputies to be approved. Shahroudi refused to nominate other candidates, resulting in a deadlock. At the same time, Khatami needed to take the oath of office in the Majles in the presence of the Guardian Council members. According to the law, only the majority of the council's members must be presented in the Majles, and the council already had nine out of 12 members. But to force the Majles to select three out of Shahroudi's six nominees, Khamenei wrote a letter to Karroubi, saying that Khatami could not take the oath of office until the selection of the three new members of the Guardian Council. The Expediency Discernment Council also ruled that the three top vote getters would be elected, regardless of whether they received the required 60 percent vote. Thus, three new reactionary members were eventually selected by the Majles.

A second hokm-e hokoomati during the Khatami era was issued in February 2004. The Guardian Council had disqualified 600 reformist candidates, including practically all the reformists who were already Majles deputies. Both Khatami and Karroubi said repeatedly that the elections would not be held until the impasse over the 600 candidates was resolved. Finally, Khamenei ordered the elections to be held using another hokm-e hokoomati.

In the presidential election of 2005, Dr. Mostafa Moein, a reformist candidate and former minister of science, research, and technology in the Khatami administration, was disqualified by the Guardian Council. Khamenei issued a third hokm-e hokoomati, allowing Moein to run. A similar gesture was made before the elections for the Eighth Majles in March 2008, when Khamenei ordered a limited number of lesser-known reformist candidates to run after they were disqualified by the Guardian Council.

Hokm-e hokoomati and Ahmadinejad

During the Ahmadinejad era, the use of hokm-e hokoomati by Khamenei has created more problems than it resolved. Right after Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, Khamenei modified Article 44 of the Constitution (without the referendum that such changes require), allowing the president to "privatize" national resources, giving them practically for free to companies linked with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Then he ordered Rafsanjani "not to take seriously for now" a 20-year national development plan drawn up by the Expediency Discernment Council and approved by Khamenei himself. In another hokm-e hokoomati, in July 2008, Khamenei allowed Ahmadinejad to keep Hossein Samsami as acting economic minister, after the three-month deadline for nominating someone to assume the post permanently and putting the candidate to a Majles vote had expired.

After Ahmadinejad's "reelection" in June 2009, however, issuing hokm-e hokoomati began to backfire on Khamenei. On July 18, 2009, he wrote a letter to Ahmadinejad, ordering him to fire Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's close confidant and his son's father-in-law, who had been appointed first vice president. Ahmadinejad ignored the decree until it was publicized a week later. He ultimately responded with a terse letter declaring that Mashaei had "resigned." He then appointed Mashaei as his chief of staff and installed him in as many as 17 other government posts. The resistance to Khamenei's decree damaged the Supreme Leader and the effectiveness of his hokm-e hokoomati.

Ahmadinejad had already fired several people whom Khamenei trusted. In October 2007, he abruptly dismissed Ali Larijani from his posts as both chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council. In 2008, he fired his interior minister, hardliner Mostafa Pourmohammadi, after he reported directly to Khamenei, without letting Ahmadinejad know, about problems in the elections for the Eighth Majles. In August 2009, he fired Hossein Safar Harrandi, his minister of culture and Islamic guidance, after he protested the president's resistance to the order to dismiss Mashaei. At the same time, he also fired Minister of Intelligence Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, after he reportedly told Khamenei that his ministry did not believe that the peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the presidential election were foreign-linked. Under pressure from Khamenei, Ahmadinejad reluctantly agreed to appoint Heydar Moslehi, a hardline cleric with ties to the Basij, as Ejei's replacement. Ahmadinejad also fired his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, while Mottaki was on an official trip to Senegal.

But it was the confrontation over Moslehi's resignation, forced by Ahmadinejad, and Khamenei's hokm-e hokoomati ordering his reinstatement that really damaged Khamenei's position among the hardliners. Not only did Ahmadinejad stay home and resist the decree for 11 days, he also set conditions for resuming his work, including appointing Mashaei as the first vice president, which he had not succeeded in doing in August 2009; firing Saeed Jalili as secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council; and installing himself as acting intelligence minister, all of which were rejected by Khamenei. As has been reported in detail by Tehran Bureau, there was a move in the Majles to impeach Ahmadinejad. Khamenei's son Mojtaba, who used to be an ardent supporter of Ahmadinejad and is close to the top Revolutionary Guard commanders, has been reported to have pressured his father to allow the impeachment proceedings to go forward.

It's not easy for Khamenei to either retain Ahmadinejad in a weakened state, or allow the Majles to impeach him. It was Khamenei who, in June 2007, described the state of the country under the Ahmadinejad administration as "exceptional" and "unique." At another time, Khamenei referred to the Ahmadinejad government as "the best since the Constitutional Revolution" -- that is, since 1906-11. It was Khamenei who in March 2008, just two days before the elections for the Eighth Majles, invited people to "elect deputies that would make the work of the [present] government easier." It was Khamenei who attacked the critics of Ali Kordan, Ahmadinejad's interior minister, whose fake degrees -- a doctorate from Oxford University and bachelor's and master's from the Islamic Azad University -- had been exposed. Immediately afterward, the popular weekly Shahrvand-e Emrooz, which had pursued the Kordan case, was shut down. It was Khamenei who right before the June 2009 election described in a speech in Mashhad the characteristics of his "desirable president," which clearly pointed to Ahmadinejad. And it was Khamenei who in his Friday Prayer sermon of June 22, 2009, supported the election coup, declared his unconditional support for Ahmadinejad, threatened the population and authorized the use of lethal force, and even said that his views were closer to Ahmadinejad's than to those of Rafsanjani, his close friend and ally of more than five decades.

Still, retaining the unpredictable and rebellious president is fraught with risks to Khamenei's authority.

The new council

For now, it appears that Khamenei has decided to keep Ahmadinejad in his post until at least the Majles elections next March 2. But he is also aware that the friction between him and his supporters and those of Ahmadinejad is not ending. At the same time, even if Khamenei and his supporters decide that the political price for impeaching Ahmadinejad is worth paying, removing him would not be easy. As I have previously described, Ahmadinejad maintains a crucial base of support among the mid-ranking Revolutionary Guard officers, which explains why when he accused the top Guard commanders of responsibility for massive illegal imports, no action was taken against him.

Therefore, the best solution that Khamenei and his supporters have been able to think of is to put a layer between the two men to shield the Supreme Leader. Khamenei thus ordered the formation of the Supreme Council for Resolving the Differences Between the Three Branches, for which Article 110 of the Constitution makes provision. To head the council, he appointed former judiciary chief Ayatollah Shahroudi, a close ally. The other four members are cleric Mohammad Hassan Aboutorabi (former member of the Majles leadership team); conservative journalist Morteza Nabavi; Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei; and another cleric in Khamenei's inner circle, Samad Mousavi Khoshdel. The formation of the new council is an implicit admission by Khamenei that his hokm-e hokoomati and the organs that have been obedient to him, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Discernment Council, are not capable of resolving the deep problems that his absolute power and the contradictions in the Constitution have created. In fact, if anything, the new council reduces the power of those other two organs. Khamenei's order may thus also be interpreted as an attempt to bypass and further isolate Rafsanjani, the Expediency Discernment Council's chairman.

The next Vali-ye Faghih?

There may be another message in the appointment of Shahroudi. There have been speculations for at least a decade about who will take over the post of Supreme Leader whenever Khamenei leaves the scene. While a few names have surfaced, including his own son Mojtaba, the most talked about possible replacement has been none other than Shahroudi. When he was still the judiciary chief, his picture was placed next to those of Khamenei and Khomeini in several places.

Born on March 21, 1948, in Najaf, Iraq, Shahroudi relocated to Iran in 1979. He is considered an Islamic scholar, well read and well informed. He reportedly tutored Khamenei after he was appointed Supreme Leader in 1989, and allegedly drafted Khamenei's resaleh amaliye -- the book of guidance that is supposed to be authored by each Marja, or source of Shia emulation -- that has been published exclusively for Shiites living outside Iran.

When Khamenei was president, Shahroudi founded the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was supported and armed by Iran, and played an important role in the formation of Iraq's government in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The chief of Iran's judiciary from 1999 to 2009, he has been a member of the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution since 1999, a member of the Assembly of Experts since 2006, and a member of both the Guardian Council and the Expediency Discernment Council since 2009.

Undoubtedly, the appointment of Shahroudi as the head of the new council gives him even more prominence within the power hierarchy. If the Islamic Republic retains its current structure, we shall see whether Shahroudi becomes the next Supreme Leader.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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