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05:26, 22 March 2018 Thursday
12:36, 08 March 2018 Thursday

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Four scenarios for post-Khamenei Iran
Four scenarios for post-Khamenei Iran

Khamenei seems to be tolerating Ahmadinejad's 'recalcitrance' because neither wants to see Larijani as next supreme leader

Selim Celal

On Feb. 18, and only four days after former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talked against the judiciary, and accused Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of 'wriggling out of responsibility’, the latter also came with a statement. Albeit lightly, he accepted that the Islamic Republic had generally fallen behind in terms of ensuring justice, and thus, an apology was owed to the people.

As usual, his statement was ambiguous, allowing for various interpretations. He did not specify who should apologize. He cleverly divided the responsibility among the state organs without directly mentioning the judiciary, which is considered to be the key player in providing justice in any modern political system.

Also, forgetting his demi-God status, his tone was like that of an opposition leader. More importantly, he made no distinction between his tenure (29 years) and that of his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini (11 years). It means that he is also not happy with the quality of justice during the 'Khomeini era', which he and other revolutionaries have always referred to as the 'Golden age of İmam' (dowran e talaee e imam).

However, only three days after the statement of the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad sent him another letter on Feb. 21. In the letter, Ahmadinejad politely reminded Khamenei of the need to be practical in ensuring justice; and demanded a pre-scheduled and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, free from the interference of the Guardian Council (GC) and military organs.

It was reported that he had also attached a voluminous draft to his letter, though its contents have yet to come out. According to his cronies, the draft contains suggestions on how to ensure justice, but it is safe to speculate that it contains demands rather than suggestions.

Not many Iranians like Ahmadinejad, and as was noted in the previous article [1], he goes under several nicknames, "Comedy-nejad" being the politest. Yet he deserves acknowledgment for exposing the true character of "lightweight reformists", and their lack of courage in facing the supreme leader and protecting the rights of the people despite enjoying significant popular support. Ahmadinejad also deserves credit for demonstrating creativity in doing politics in a significantly unconventional way.

One should also be impressed by Ahmadinejad's over-confidence, given his demand for substantial reform in the electoral system. It is quite normal if someone blames a system for his own failure; but it seems unique that a system is being blamed by someone who has been its beneficiary. Had there been no GC, Ahmadinejad would have never been elected. To the Guardian Council, Ahmadinejad's demand is a typical example of an Iranian saying: "Taking the salt and breaking the salt-shaker" (Namak khurdan o namakdan shekastan).

However, the most dramatic episode so far has been the GC’s reaction. Its spokesperson on Feb. 22 accused Ahmadinejad of 'electoral engineering' during the 2009 presidential election. The term 'electoral engineering' was introduced to the Iranian electoral discourse in 2005 by Mehdi Karrobi, one of the defeated candidates.

In his famous letter to Khamenei, he had blamed his son Mujtaba Khamenei, the GC, and the Revolutionary Guards for manipulating the 2005 presidential elections in favor of Ahmadinejad. Since then, Mehdi Karroubi, a 2005 presidential candidate, has been shunned by the establishment. Now, 13 years later, the GC, which is the key engineer of all elections in Iran, is using the same terminology against Ahmadinejad. The GC’s statement is an 'escape-forward' -- to use a Persian oxymoron -- instead of an 'escape-away' strategy, and may turn into a blunder.

In the previous article, a piece of advice was offered to Ahmadinejad for opening the 2009 presidential election's black box if he wanted to increase his popularity among Iranians. While Ahmadinejad has not taken it yet, or perhaps he has reserved it for his further moves, the GC’s statement has provided him with a sought-after pretext. Now everyone has pricked up their ears to hear Ahmadinejad's narrative. Gradually the game is becoming interesting to Iranians.

That said, so far Ahmadinejad has focused on the Larijani brothers. His communications with the supreme leader have been perceived as appeals by a hopeless person to a higher authority. But, in his recent letter, Ahmadinejad has made a significant encroachment and is openly demanding a structural change in the office of the supreme leader.

Therefore, the question is, how long would Khamenei tolerate Ahmadinejad's recalcitrance? More importantly, what lies beneath the former's tolerance? Apart from the nature of the changes Ahmadinejad is arguing for, the above questions need to be answered in the context of the very time frame of his recalcitrance.

Keeping aside the gossips about the supreme leader’s health condition, any ruler at his age would, as a rule of thumb, be thinking about his successor. He is not the only concerned party; his cronies and family members are also worried, since their positions and privileges -- and even life -- would be at stake if the transition of power would not go smoothly, or if power were to slip into "wrong hands".

Obviously, Khamenei is also worried about his legacy and whether the right person would succeed him. As a result, there has been a lot of political maneuvering going on beneath the surface in regard to the issue of succession.

Therefore, one would need to appreciate the Ahmadinejad factor in the ongoing ‘cold war of succession’. His recent demand for change in the supreme leader’s office, his current position as member of the Expediency Council, his former position as the president of the country, and his individual character, all suggest that he will be playing a role -- however small it may be -- in the future power transition, provided that he can remain in politics until that time.

In a nutshell, there are at least four post-Khamenei scenarios. First, the removal of the supreme leader position: It will endanger the interests of many powerful stakeholders and individuals ranging from the top clergy in Qom, to the Guardian Council etc.; and as such, it would amount to the very death of theocracy in Iran. Though it is not impossible, it would not be an easy and violence-free option.

Second, the establishment of a Supreme Leadership Council. In fact, this idea originated right after Khomeini’s death and was considered for implementation, but it was later on removed from the Constitution in its 1989 amendment. Former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in the last few months of his life, tried to promote it again. Technically speaking, this idea does not seem practical, particularly in the third world.

Additionally, it does not suit the interests of the stakeholders, as, in such a scenario, they would have to bargain with a group rather than a single individual. It would be highly unstable as well. More importantly, 'council' is a democratic concept aimed at preventing power from turning into dictatorship in the hands of a single person, and as such, does not fit the authoritarian nature of Iran's theocratic establishment.

Third, succession by an ayatollah. This is technically practical, however, it poses the question of who that lucky person should be. There are various individuals eyeing the supreme leadership position, ranging from Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani to Hashemi Shahroudi, as well as a dozen other clergymen. Yet, all of them, instead of trying to climb up, are mostly engaged in efforts to drag each other down. Furthermore, the nature of the position involves a lifetime responsibility, making bargaining very difficult.

Finally, the most practical scenario would be Mojtaba Khamenei succeeding his father. Any father wants his own son or daughter to succeed him, and vice versa: any son or daughter would probably want to succeed his/her father. Ayatollah Khomeini and his son Ahmad had also intended that. That is why Khomeini removed his surrogate Ayatollah Muntazeri to pave the way for his son. But his unexpected death left his plan incomplete.

Yet, Ahmad's mysterious death (1995) almost five years after the demise of his father is an additional reason for Khamenei not to leave Mojtaba at the mercy of the next supreme leader. Once his father is dead, Mojtaba will not be dearer to the Iranian authorities than Ahmad. Many former revolutionaries at least felt some emotional attachment to Ahmad -- however small it may be -- because of his father, but they are not emotionally attached to Mojtaba in the least.

Normally, a leader chooses one of his sons or daughters and starts promoting them in his own lifetime. But, sometimes it backfires as the prospective successor becomes controversial, like Muhammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Another method quite popular among Iranians is to 'keep the watermelon uncut, so that it can be easily sold'. It seems that Khamenei is following this method. There is no official position for Mojtaba. He rarely appears in public, and even his pictures are rarely seen.

Given the four possible scenarios above, the Ahmadinejad factor seems more relevant to the last two scenarios. While Ahmadinejad himself is not qualified for the supreme leadership position, Ayatollah Larijani is one of the potential contenders. It is where Khamenei's interest coincides with that of Ahmadinejad as neither of them wants Larijani as the next supreme leader.

As far as Ahmadinejad is concerned, to him it is a matter of life and death. He knows that if Larijani becomes the next supreme leader, he cannot survive a single day. If it had been at Larijani’s discretion alone, he would not hesitate to jail and hang Ahmadinejad immediately. There are even rumors that Larjiani has met the supreme leader three times to ask for the arrest of Ahmadinejad, but Khamenei reportedly refused.

No doubt, politics is an arena of uncertainty, and no possibility can be ruled out. Yet, the course of events suggests that Ahmadinejad is somewhat protected by the supreme leader, because he is far less dangerous than Larijani for the supreme leader’s future plans about the issue of succession. Therefore, Khamenei may tolerate Ahmadinejad’s behavior for as long as possible and use him to remove the Larijani obstacle in the way of Mojtaba’s ascendency to the throne of supreme leadership.

Source: AA

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