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Iran's Ali Khamenei
On my long flight back from Hong Kong the other day, I was perusing the November/December 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs and an essay by Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist and dissident who was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006 and whose writings are currently banned in Iran. Ganji posted a bit in Farsi on akbarganji.org back in February and it was recently translated for Foreign Affairs. [You can now read the full piece on the site as well…but I’ve excerpted it below for you.]
Ganji writes that with Iran’s presidential election in 2009, some opposition leaders are labeling Iran’s current situation as being worse than it has ever been over the past 50 years. The thing is many in the West blame President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Akbar Ganji says this analysis is incorrect, “because it exaggerates Ahmadinejad’s importance and leaves out of the picture the country’s single most powerful figure: Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.” While Ganji didn’t know when he first wrote his piece that the next American president would be Barack Obama, Iran is certainly at the top of the list of foreign policy issues facing the president-elect when he takes the oath of office in January.
Khamanei has held the supreme leader position since 1989, and, “Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all operate under the absolute sovereignty of the supreme leader; Khamenei is the head of state, the commander in chief, and the top ideologue. He also reaches into economic, religious, and cultural affairs through various government councils and organs of repression, such as the Revolutionary Guards, whose commander he himself appoints.”
Ganji notes: “Despite all the attention he receives, Ahmadinejad does not even rank among Iran’s top 100 leaders over the past 30 years. Khamenei supports Ahmadinejad immeasurably more than he did any of Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, but Ahmadinejad is only as powerful as he is devoted to Khamenei and successful at advancing his aims. Khamanei’s power is so great, in fact, that in 2004 the reformist Muhammad Khatami declared that the post of president, which he held at the time, had been reduced to a factotum. Blaming the country’s main problems on Ahmadinejad not only overstates his influence; it inaccurately suggests that Iran’s problems will go away when he does. More likely, especially regarding matters such as Iran’s foreign policy, the situation will remain much the same as long as the structure of power that supports the supreme leader remains unchanged.”
It’s also important to note that elections in Iran are, in Ganji’s term, “rigged pseudoelections. Candidates must pledge in writing that they are committed, in theory and in practice, to the Iranian constitution, Islam, the absolute sovereignty of the supreme leader, and the late (Ayatollah) Khomenei.”
“If any single person is to blame for Iran’s state today it is Khamenei, who over the course of two decades as supreme leaders has secured a complete stranglehold on power in Iran. ‘Where domination is primarily traditional, even though it is exercised by virtue of the ruler’s personal autonomy, it will be called patrimonial authority,’ Max Weber wrote in Economy and Society in 1922; ‘where it indeed operates primarily on the basis of discretion, it will be called sultanism.’ Sultanism is both traditional and arbitrary, according to Weber, and it expresses itself largely through recourse to military force and through an administrative system that is an extension of the ruler’s household and court. Sultans sometimes hold elections in order to prove their legitimacy, but they never lose any power in them. According to Weber, sultans promote or demote officials at will, they rob state bodies of their independence of action and infiltrate them with their proxies, and they marshal state economic resources to fund an extensive apparatus of repression. Weber might have been describing Khamenei.”
Interestingly, there is no single all-embracing party in Iran. Even the ruling religious fundamentalists lack a single vision. But Article 57 of the Iranian constitution grants the supreme leader absolute power. The “powers of government in the Islamic Republic are vested in the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive powers, functioning under the supervision of the absolute religious leader.” For his part, Khamenei has then taken these powers and broadened them into other spheres to exercise control over economic, religious and cultural affairs, “sometimes directly and sometimes through various councils or through the Revolutionary Guards,” writes Ganji.
“At this first meeting with cabinet ministers as supreme leader, in 1989, Khamenei expounded a ‘theory of terror’ that has since defined his approach to internal security issues.” Khamenei said at this meeting that “The majority of the people in the state are silent. A selfless group of individuals can make the state endure by using terror.”
And Ganji notes that “The military’s involvement in the economy has also increased significantly and is now officially sanctioned. Many long-standing disputes over the Revolutionary Guards’ allegedly illegal economic activities have been whitewashed.”
On the nuclear front, Ganji notes a speech by Khamenei earlier this year to university students, where the supreme leader said, “Today, whoever demands a temporary suspension from us, we tell them: ‘We had a temporary suspension once already, for two years…What was the use?...Suspension turned into something sacrosanct that Iran had no right whatsoever to touch!...’ And, at the end of it all, they said, ‘Temporary suspension is not enough; you have to close down the nuclear business altogether’!”
As for Israel, Ganji writes, “Tehran has long seen the Israeli government as the main instigator against Iran, but by calling for the destruction of Israel and denying the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad has given the world a pretext to mobilize against Iran. And yet even in this respect, he is less different from other Iranian leaders than he might seem. Khomeini used to say, ‘Israel must cease to exist.’ He did not believe that the creation of two independent states with equal rights, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, could bring peace. He distinguished the Jews from Israel but argued, ‘Israel is a cancerous tumor, and it has to be destroyed.’…
“Although denying the Holocaust has been an initiative of Ahmadinejad’s, it is unlikely that he would make such a claim, which could be very detrimental to Iran, without the supreme leader’s consent. Khamenei has been careful not to personally engage in Holocaust denial, but he has downplayed the effect of Ahmadinejad’s fierce remarks and openly defends him.”
Ganji concludes: “In the end, there is no question that diplomatic negotiations and the establishment of bilateral relations between the United States and Iran would serve the two countries’ respective national interests. But such efforts ought to be carried out so as not to undermine human rights activists and democracy advocates in Iran. To date, Washington’s principal concerns have focused on curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and guaranteeing the strategic supremacy of Israel in the region. Meanwhile, the aim of Iranian dissidents and Iranian advocates of human rights and democracy is to bring about, through nonviolent action, a democratic system fully committed to the cause of freedom, human rights, and federalism. These actors are strongly opposed to Washington’s threats of a U.S. military strike against Iran and talk of ‘regime change.’ This language and, more generally, Iran policy under the Bush administration have only strengthened the hand of Sultan Khamanei and made Iran’s transition to democracy much more difficult.”