On Aug. 3, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani started his second term in office amid high tension with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. For the last couple of months, the trend has been changing in terms of frequency and explicitness. Neither the Supreme Leader nor the president miss any podium to make remarks against the other. They are only one step short of addressing each other by name.
Given the sequence of the events, many observers are awaiting the next episode of the quarrel. On everyone’s mind are two questions: Where will these brawls finally end up? And can President Rouhani finish his second term in office or not?
In this regard, the very first historical analogy that springs to mind is the quarrel between Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and Abul Hasan Bani Sadr, the then president of the republic, which led to the removal of the latter in 1981. This analogy becomes particularly relevant since the Supreme Leader also referred to the issue in one of his addresses in the presence of Rouhani and warned about the occurrence of similar situations. Many analysts viewed the Supreme Leader’s statement as a clear warning to President Rouhani that he might face Bani Sadr’s fate. Later, on June 30, 2017, Mohseni Ejei, first deputy of the chief justice of Iran, discussed the Bani Sadr-Khomeini quarrel with much more elaboration in his speech at the Tehran Friday prayers and forecast a new series of seditious activities against the Islamic Republic.
If one goes on to analyze the current tension based on the analogy (of the Khomeini-Bani Sadr quarrel), one may conclude that President Rouhani would also eventually be impeached and removed. However, this way of historical analysis would not be scientific. In historical analyses, as noted by Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, “dissimilarities are as important as similarities”. Therefore, in historical analyses, one eye should focus on similarities while the other should simultaneously concentrate on differences. Only then can a concrete analysis come out.
There is no doubt that there are certain similarities between the two cases. Nonetheless, the list of differences is also quite long. Therefore, before jumping to any conclusion, we should have a clear understanding of these differences as well.
When Bani Sadr rose against Khomeini, he had a powerful organization behind him, named Sazman-e-Mujahedin-e-Khalq (The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran). It was already armed and ready for street fights, and it actually did fight. As far as Rouhani is concerned, despite his boldness so far, he has not been able to promote his own political brand. He is still breathing under the shadow of former President Muhammad Khatami. It was noted during his re-election campaign last May that he would convey the greetings of Muhammad Khatami to his audiences. In the meantime, he has been capitalizing on late Rafsanjani’s legacy. By the same token, he does not have his own brand of supporters. His heterogeneous support base includes reformists, green movement activists, moderate conservatives, ethno-religious minorities, and even those so-called "negative voters" who support Rouhani out of their hatred for the establishment. Hence, Rouhani cannot afford to go to the extreme that Bani Sadr did.
Nonetheless, if Rouhani does decide to go to such an extreme, it would not be easy for the Supreme Leader to remove him the way Khomeini removed Bani Sadr. That is because, in 1981 the Iranian political system was parliamentary. So, Bani Sadr was not directly in-charge of the executive, rather he had a prime minister, who had been imposed on him by Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian parliament. Bani Sadr accepted Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Rajaee after a long dispute with the Iranian parliament, which was under the control of the Islamic Republic Party and other revolutionary groups. Rajaee and his entire Cabinet members were disciples of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Moreover, Khomeini removed Bani Sadr at a time when Iranians would see the former’s picture on the moon. Despite the harsh manner in which he dealt with people, Khomeini was only one step away from being seen as Imam Mahdi, the twelfth Shia Imam, who is believed to be in occultation. One can emphatically say that throughout his leadership, Khomeini did not have any legitimacy problem. But, the current Supreme Leader lacks the charisma which Khomeini enjoyed. It can even be argued that he has a serious legitimacy problem. So his cronies are actively circulating amazing stories about him. One day it is claimed that he has regular one-on-one meetings with Imam Mahdi at the Jamkaran Well (as well as near Qom city in Iran, where Imam Mahdi is believed to have gone into hiding). Another day, it is claimed that he cried Ya Ali! (Oh Ali!) right after his birth. These huge efforts, however, do not seem to create the desired effect in the public in general.
More importantly, Khomeini was a brave revolutionary leader. During the revolution he did stick with his one-point demand: “Shah must go” (Shah bayad biravad). After the revolution, he also maintained his decisive character. During the constitutional crisis, he reportedly said: “if 35 million say Yes, I will say No”. He was also brave enough to accept the responsibility of his decision, be it lengthening the Iran-Iraq War, or accepting the cease-fire. But Khamenei's self-confidence is not to that extent. He runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds. During the nuclear deal, he kept making contradictory statements: one day in favor of the nuclear deal, another day against it. His statements were ambivalent, which made it very difficult to tell which side he was on. On one hand, he talked about the so-called ‘heroic softness’, and on the other, he promoted revolutionary ideals. It is said that “men make mistakes; big men make big mistakes”. But one should add that "big men have the courage to face up to the consequences of their mistakes". Khamenei does not seem to have that level of courage. He is very good at one thing though: taking advantage of the situation. Removing Rouhani is not risk-free. So the Supreme Leader does not seem ready to take such risks.
It is necessary to note that being a man of principles, Bani Sadr was not involved in, or at least, he did not have time to get involved in human rights violations. But before being elected president in 2013, for the most part of his career, Rouhani served at top security positions. Given the severe human rights violations in the Islamic Republic, Rouhani is not as clean as Bani Sadr. As a president, he has always tried to defend his record but has never admitted to, regretted or apologized for the things he did in the past.
Last but not least, the quarrel between Khomeini and Bani Sadr was an issue between a clergyman and a follower. But the Khamenei-Rouhani quarrel is an issue between two clergymen. They use the same arguments, resort to the same logic. For instance, in his June 5 address, Rouhani referred to Nahjul Balagha (a collection of sayings attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib) to claim his public mandate. To be specific, Khamenei and Rouhani are both equipped with the same arms. Both can issue blasphemy decrees against each other. An Iranian proverb says “Only iron can cut Iron”.
Having pointed out the issues above, one can say that the conflict between Rouhani and the Supreme Leader may continue, but a full-fledged war is not foreseeable yet. That's why, in spite of the tough remarks they make against each other, the option of ‘heroic softness’ is also a fixture on their tables.