Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: A supreme autocrat not a messiah
In the last few months, Iran’s Supreme Leader has been delivering speeches in contradiction, hypocrisy and double standards
Although the media, policy analysts, and politicians have been depicting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the man who has the final say in Iran, the man who wields ultimate power in the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader, but a tactical shift in Ayatollah Khamenei’s policies indicate that he has increasingly become less powerful or “Supreme” as the mainstream media reveals or as his title indicates. Ayatollah Khamenei totally distrusts any domestic institution, even the clergy. More specifically, he distrusts two categories: the Iranian population as well as foreign countries and powers including Arab and Western states.
In the last few months, Iran’s supreme leader has been delivering speeches in contradiction, hypocrisy and double standards. In every other speech, he backs up one institution (executive branch, judiciary, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Corps, Intelligence, Parliament, or Majlis) and undermines other.
For example, when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, Ayatollah Khamenei points out that he supports President Hassan Rowhani’s technocrat team to resolve Iran’s nuclear problem by making temporary and short-time concessions. He famously called it “heroic flexibility” and insisted on a tactical shift stating, “A wrestler who sometimes shows flexibility because of technical reasons, should not forget his opponent.”
On the other hand, in his next speech he takes the side of the general of Revolutionary Guards, which reject any concessions and demand reaching nuclear breakaway capacity and ultimately obtaining access to nuclear weapons.
Velayate Faqih, the supreme leader’s lifelong authority
The main question is, why are Khamenei’s speeches filled with a multitude of inconsistencies and contradictions? Despite the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei attempts to depict a picture that he is a spiritual leader, a Shia messiah who represents a divine guide until Imam Mehdi returns, and an impartial figure in the political economy of the Islamic Republic, he has shown to be a shrewd, Machiavellian, and autocratic politician.
In the last few months, Iran’s supreme leader has been delivering speeches in contradiction, hypocrisy and double standardsDr. Majid Rafizadeh
After realizing that Western sanctions had hit Iran’s economy hard, and endangered the survival of the Islamic Republic and his rule, Khamenei tactically and masterfully shifted his policies and reliance on some powerful institutions.
On the one hand, Ayatollah Khamenei is desperate to ensure the economic survival of the Islamic Republic and his grip on power. As a result, he began to support people such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as well as the technocrat elites of Rowhani, in order to obtain some sanction reliefs through temporary concessions.
Military dictatorship and authoritarianism
On the other hand, in order to appease the high generals and commanders of the IRGC, Khamenei backs their defiance in every other speech against any concessions and normalization of relations with the West, particularly the United States.
The fact is that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei needs the Revolutionary Guard in order to retain the consolidation of his power while the IRGC cracks down on any domestic oppositions, and pursues Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region by operating in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and supporting proxies such as Hezbollah.
In other words, Khamenei is switching his support in every other speech from one institution to other, due to the fact that this necessitates his grip on power.
Modus operandi of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Although Khamenei is transforming and watching how the Islamic Republic has rapidly turned into a military dictatorship by the evolution Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and intelligence— the most powerful political and economic tools— these institutions solely report to him and he regularly changes and handpicks the commanders.
He has masterfully used the tremendous oil revenues by saving billions of dollars in his assets such as Bonyad (which reportedly controls an estimated 25% of Iran's GDP), Setad (headquarters for executing the orders of the Imam, worth an estimate of $98 billion and is considered as his economic empire), and spending the revenues on his jurisdiction, state-controlled religious institutions and foundations.
Khamenei has always tried to keep a low profile and hide behind the scenes by wielding power without holding himself accountable through the judiciary and executive branches, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Iran’s parliament—the Majlis.
Most of the commanders and members in the judiciary, intelligence, and executive branches (as well as the IRGC, and Majlis), are either directly or indirectly handpicked by Khamenei, and remain loyal to him.
Unique bureaucratic group
Although Ayatollah Khamenei is influenced by the aforementioned institutions, he mostly relies on the other recognized and unique bureaucratic group he created: the House, Bayt-e Rahbar, House of the Leader, or Office of the Supreme Leader. Intriguingly, Khamenei avoids using clergy memebers as his advisor in the Bayt-e Rahbar, and depicts himself as the most knowledgeable figure in political, religious and economic affairs.
The moment that the Islamic Republic receives the required sanctions relief and when Khamenei can ensure that his rule and economic survival of his power are not in danger anymore, he will return to his traditional modus operandi— relying on the House (office) of the Supreme Leader, ministry of intelligence, judiciary, and Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Finally, it is crucial to point out that Khamenei’s reliance on his handpicked commanders and members of Office of the Supreme Leader will create a resistance and gap between himself and the most powerful clergy members of Iran, particularly in city of Qum.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.
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