From the Saudi embassy blaze, to the capture of American sailors

The supreme leader's complete authority has caused a lot of frustration for all former Iranian presidents

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Although most of what Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says is usually insignificant, this time he has hit the nail on the head. Commenting on the capture of 10 U.S. marines by Iran, he wondered if Iran would have dared to do the same if the ships were Russian.

It is clear that the Iranian authorities deliberately arrested and humiliated the soldiers before they were released. Tehran was confident that the consequences of this adventure would be benign. It is common for ships to enter territorial waters by mistake and then get guided out.

Iran did not stop at arresting those who were onboard. Photos showing 10 soldiers surrendering and waving their hands above their heads were quickly circulated by the country’s official news agencies. While in captivity, the soldiers were interrogated by Iran’s official media, urging them to admit that they had entered Iranian waters by mistake and that they apologize for their actions. The idea was to humiliate them.

It is difficult to believe that the Iranian leadership did not learn of the incident until at a later stage and then intervened for their release. The anger towards Iran for launching a missile close to another American aircraft carrier three weeks ago is still echoing in Congress and the U.S. media. It is typical that Iranian naval decisions, such as detaining vessels or arresting U.S. personnel, turn into a political tussle at higher levels, considering the tensions that prevail in Gulf waters.

No signs of change

It is important to look at Iran’s actions in recent times, which show no signs of change. This is the case even though only a few days are left for the lifting of economic sanctions and handing over of $50 billion as part of the implementation of the nuclear deal. Iran has recently surprised the world by testing a missile that is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which was considered by the United Nations as a breach of the agreement.

The supreme leader's complete authority has caused a lot of frustration for all former Iranian presidents

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

The burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad amount to another serious offense in the eyes of the international community. Following the arrests of the American sailors, as well as the missile test three weeks ago, the entire scenario suggests that the Iranian regime has not changed much even if the president seems honest when expressing his government’s desire to open up to the world.

The Iranian regime is not the same as most other countries. The president of the Republic, which should be the highest political office, does not in fact govern. The foreign minister does not necessarily reflect foreign policy positions. The supreme leader is considered infallible, even if he is wrong. There is no similar international example other than perhaps that of the Emperor of Japan – before the defeat in World War II and before he relinquished power.

The Iranian president does not have authority over the army and the influential Revolutionary Guards. The military has a political role and takes command from the supreme leader, not the president or the government. Therefore they can veto any agreement or change any commitment made by representatives of the government even if signed. The supreme leader's complete authority has caused a lot of frustration for all former Iranian presidents.

The supreme leader

Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s first prime minister after the revolution, pledged to release the U.S. embassy hostages in 1979. He later resigned following his disappointment over late Ayatollah Khomeini’s decisions related to the hostages. The same happened with the first president after the revolution, Hassan Bani-Sadr, who was forced to flee Iran, after Khomeini unleashed his anger at him. Although Hashemi Rafsanjani was president till 1997, and was close to Supreme Leader Khamenei, he was unable to implement agreements he signed, such as those with the Saudis.

Perhaps, the president who was embarrassed the most was Mohammad Khatami who was elected by popular vote and announced a program that showed openness to the world. But President Khatami has found himself in an awkward situation with his people and government because the supreme leader stopped him from fulfilling his obligations and did not protect him and his men from the domination of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia. Associations and newspapers close to the president had also been shut down.

Even President Ahmadinejad, who was described as the supreme leader’s preferred president – with exaggerated kisses on the hand highlighting a special relationship between the two – has faced enormous problems with the supreme leader’s office in the last two years of his rule. Recent incidents we have witnessed, such as the burning of the Saudi embassy by protesters and then the Iranian president denouncing them as criminals, reflect the situation in Tehran. We should note that the launch of the missile near the American carrier, the detention of the two ships and the arrest of the American sailors can be seen as part of the power struggle under the mantle of the supreme leader.

These developments raise the most important question, can we really trust what the Iranian government says and the agreements it signs? If the supreme leader presents himself as the “representative of God on Earth,” we should then trust only his words and promises. The rest in the Iranian political circle are merely bureaucrats.

Let us not forget it was only one person who ended the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq; Ayatollah Khomeini had the last word. He announced from the city of Qom that he agreed to a ceasefire although he wasn’t happy about it. It was only then that the war ended even though mediators and Security Council resolutions had been working on this for five years.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Jan. 16, 2016.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.