Iran: Anticipating change or more
of the same?
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s health concerns have given rise to speculation in the world’s media about the possible future political direction of Iran. Since coming to power a quarter of a century ago, Khamenei has kept a tight hold on the reins of power in the Islamic Republic. But has he proved himself a good leader during that time? The Middle East magazine put this question and others to the founder of the Centre for a Democratic Iran, Dr Behrooz Behbudi, who has long campaigned for democratic and social reform in his homeland. Dr Behbudi believes Khamenei has repeatedly let his people down over the last 25 years and explains why.
TME: Recent reports of Ayatollah Khamenei’s failing health have caused a flurry of international press speculation. How will history judge the man who has been known as ‘Supreme Leader’ for a quarter of a century?
Dr. Behbudi: I believe the reports of Ayatollah Khamenei’s illness were a publicity stunt by the Islamic republic’s propaganda machines – an attempt to portray him as an “ordinary citizen” who requires medical attention just like anybody else, and at the same time whip up public support for his badly damaged image resulting from a catalogue of disastrous leadership errors.
Let’s not forget that it was this same Khamenei who publicly announced at the height of the Green Movement uprisings of 2008 against the rigging of the presidential votes that he fully supported Ahmadinejad and condemned the protestors as “hooligans”.
Hundreds of young Iranians were killed during those peaceful protests and yet five years on the despotic Khamenei still refers to his bloody crackdown of that civil rights movement as a “plot by US and Zionists”.
We all know what calamities the eight years of Ahmadinejad brought to the lives of millions of Iranians through his adventurist and fanatical domestic and foreign policies.
At home, with the support of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards he was allowed to impose a police state on the socio-political affairs of Iran, and again with strategic direction from Khamenei he defied all UN resolutions on Iran’s nuclear programme, leading to a decade of paralysing international sanctions on the country and its long suffering people.
Therefore, we are still dealing with a “leader” who has not repented and continues to survive politically by pitting the various factions of the regime against each other.
Suggestions that his illness might lead to a major internal power struggle among these factions have also been overstated, though I believe the question of who will eventually replace or succeed him has now been raised, albeit inadvertently, by those who staged his hospitalisation.
The decision to elevate Khamenei to Supreme Leader after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini did not meet with unanimous approval inside Iran. It has been said that his lack of religious credentials have made him insecure, which has had adverse effects on his style of leadership. Would you agree?
Dr. Behbudi: Ali Khamenei was never the choice of the founder of the Islamic republic Ayatollah Khomeini to succeed him after his death.
Apart from his lack of religious credentials, Khamenei belonged to a group of Iranian religionists regarded by Khomeini as “conservatives” within Iran’s clerical establishments. Khomeini’s heir apparent was Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri who was toppled by these conservative clerics, including Khamenei himself, from his position as a Marjae Alighadr, or grand source of emulation, after he began to question the practicality of the Velayate Fghih (absolute rule of the supreme religious leader) and sided with nationalist-liberal forces in criticising the human rights abuses in Iran.
In the aftermath of Khomeini’s death, Ali Khame nei who had already served two terms as president, succeeded him through a series of behind closed door deals between Hashemi Rafsanjani and the younger radical clerics known in Iran as the “followers of Imam’s line”.
It is a well-known fact among Iran’s political forces that Khamenei owes his leadership status more to Rafsanjani’s power broking tactics than anything else.
However, since ascending to power and turning into a religious despot and skilled political player, Khamenei has managed to dominate Iran’s post-Khomeini political scene by empowering the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij militias and the security and intelligence organs of the regime around his “anti-American-Israeli” paranoia.
It is noteworthy that before his death in 2011 Ayatollah Montazeri denounced Khamenei by calling his leadership “the rule of repression and illegitimate”.
There have been rumours that President Rouhani is unhappy with some of the public statements made by the Supreme Leader which, it is alleged, he finds undermining of his office. Would you agree?
Dr. Behbudi: Rouhani’s presidency is the consequence of several important developments in Iran’s politics.
Iran’s politics were changed forever by the birth of the Green Movement, irrespective of what later happened to the social forces behind that uprising.
The regime’s response by cracking down on the protestors revealed both its vulnerability as well as its lack of legitimacy.
The additional immense economic pressure put on the regime by the international community to come clean with details of its nuclear programme could not have been ignored by those “rational elements” within the leadership structure. It was obvious that sooner or later the simmering public discontent about the effects of the sanctions would erupt into street protests. Therefore, in a staged presidential contest among a selected number of the regime’s loyal past and present officials, Rouhani was given a prominent position to win, by allowing him to mildly criticise the Ahmadinejad years and deceitfully pretend that he was opposed to the crackdown on the Green Movement and supported their civil rights objectives. And all that was achieved without publicly raising even the slightest criticism of Khamenei’s tyrannical rule, the real cause of all Iran’s social, political and economic problems.
Rouhani’s misleading campaign still attracted public support as voters went for a choice between the bad and the even worse, as has been the hallmark of all presidential elections under the repressive regime of the Islamic Republic, since its inception 35 years ago.
Naturally with the country facing economic meltdown under international sanctions, Rouhani’s priority has been to reach a compromise with world powers on the nuclear issue, effectively turning him into Iran’s Foreign Minister, and leaving precious little time to take care of the country’s numerous domestic problems.
No surprise then that Rouhani has hardly done anything to improve Iran’s pitiful human rights situation and also failed to deliver on his election promise of releasing the leaders of the Green Movement from house arrest or bringing to justice those behind the murders of Iranian youths during the 2008 disturbances.
I do not believe Khamenei is attempting to undermine Rouhani and his government. I believe the president has embarked on a mission of rebuilding the image of Khamenei instead of rebuilding Iran’s devastated social fabric. Rouhani may well be the last chance this despotic regime has of reforming itself or facing collapse, although along with millions of other Iranian patriots I personally favour a peaceful transition into secular and democratic governance to replace the rule of this medieval regime.
Khamenei recently announced that he had refused to cooperate with the United States in confronting the terrorist Islamic State organisation. How do you interpret this decision and the way it was broadcast (initially via Twitter, followed by the Fars News Agency)?
Dr Behbudi: Here again Khamenei is deceitfully acting as a genuine political player to distance himself from the behind the scene deals his regime is making with world powers, using the Russians as mediators.
Islamic State is undoubtedly a threat to the peace and security of the Middle Eastern nations as well as the West, as we have witnessed by watching their indiscriminatly barbaric acts on our TV screens.
However, I believe a similar type of barbarism in the name of Islam has long been practiced by Khamenei’s regime in Iran; he incidentally refers to himself as the Caliph of Shia Muslims. You cannot ask one dictator to join forces with those who defend freedom and humanity to fight against another dictator.
Since Ayatollah Khamenei came to power there have been major global developments, not least the spread of social media, which has added a new dimension to the dissemination of news. People across the globe are generally more critical of their leaders. Is this also true of Iranians?
Dr Behbudi: The changes in communications that you mention have transported our world into a revolutionary new era in which it is much harder for dictators like Khamenei to hide their misdeeds against their people. The young people of Iran are the future of our nation. They are Internet savvy and crying out for the social freedoms this medieval regime has tried to deny them.
We have all heard the story of how nine young Iranians who committed the ‘sin’ of videoing themselves singing and dancing along to the hit pop song Happy recently were arrested and sentenced to prison terms and 90 lashes. It is beyoind comprehension.
Here we are dealing with another Islamic State type of barbarism in present day Iran, and one that the West must not overlook when formulating its appeasing policy towards the regime of the mullahs
The Iranian people and their human rights, alongside guaranteed peace and prosperity, are far greater issues than those concerning the regime’s nuclear programme and must not be compromised in an attempt to reach a political deal with the Islamic republic.
Do you feel that the demise of Ayatollah Khamenei – be it sooner, or later – could mark the rise of a new political era in the Islamic Republic?
Dr Behbudi: The demise of Khamenei may not necessarily bring an end to the life of the Islamic Republic regime, but would certainly pave the way for major changes as to how it will operate in the future. There is no doubt that the medieval notion of Velayate Fghih (absolute rule of the supreme religious leader) has had catastrophic consequences for Iran as it has simply replaced the despotic and unaccountable rule of a monarch with a cleric who claims to be acting on God’s instructions!
For a nation with a long history of civilisation and fight for justice and freedom this theory is a curse that must be consigned to its grave.
Apart from the regime’s so-called reformist and conservative forces there exists in our country millions of freedom fighting women, students, trade unionist and even progressive religious liberals who would not allow the future of their motherland to be decided again behind closed doors, as was the case with the selection of Khamenei 25 years ago.
Khamenei may have recovered form his prostate disease but he will never recover from the disease of despotism that the nature of the regime has made out of him. n