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The importance of being Khamenei

President-elect Rouhani can say 'moderate' all he wants; Iran's brazenly hardline Supreme Leader still has the final word

Since his rise to Supreme Leaderdom in 1989, Ali Hosseini Khamenei has routinely declared himself to be an impartial arbiter in Iranian politics. A risible claim of course, but like it or not the Ayatollah has been given a big role in the region’s forthcoming nuclear pantomime.

This coming Saturday, the incumbent Ahmadinejad will step down as President of Iran and the ex-nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani will take office. Since the announcement of the election results Rouhani has made a number of promising public declarations. Domestic policies aside, what had everyone talking was his pledge to remedy Iran’s ailing relationship with the West. His plan? Moderation, moderation, moderation.

Hopefully hinted at by my reiteration of the word in the previous paragraph, Rouhani used ‘moderation’ one or two times in his first speech as president-elect. (Fifteen times to be exact – admittedly an unimpressive feat when compared to the endeavors of the recently ousted Egyptian President Morsi, who managed to employ a similar buzzword – ‘legitimacy’ – fifty-six times in his speech last month, but a good effort anyway.) Everywhere you look, ‘moderation’ is what you see. Rouhani, or the regime (or both), obviously understands the potency of the buzzword.

The first and most pressing issue concerning Rouhani’s presidency is the nuclear impasse between Iran and the West – a crisis that really is in urgent need of bilateral moderation. This is a dispute that will reach its zenith in the near future, making Rouhani and other current players in the crisis hugely important.

The only thing missing in the nuclear standoff between the West and Iran is a soundtrack by Morricone. Benjamin Netanyahu has in the past threatened military action against Iran if the West continues along its path of indecision. For Israel, the prospect of a nuclear Iran presents an existential crisis. Foreign policy is the big focus, and Rouhani knows it. 

Moderation in foreign policy is neither surrender nor conflict, neither passivity nor confrontation. Moderation is effective and constructive interaction with the world.

Rouhani is right: the only real revolutionaries in the Middle East are moderate democrats, not the likes of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups – ‘revolutionaries’ only in the most sardonic sense of the word. Throughout the Middle East there are legions of protesters who are seeking to introduce systems of governance relatively unknown in the region; systems that will provide and protect the rights and freedoms of all their inhabitants – religion, race, gender or sexuality notwithstanding.

The Iranian youth doesn’t want to live under an intransigent theocracy. The people of Iran, like people all throughout the Middle East, want reform (following the 2009 presidential election, groups of protesters took to the streets of Tehran chanting ‘Death to the dictator! Death to Khamenei!) as suggested by the flourishing liberal movement that seems to be emerging in the backstreets of Tehran.

Khamenei bearing a striking resemblance to a younger Fidel Castro

Unfortunately for many, since 1979 the ‘final say’ has been a privilege reserved not for the the president, but for the Supreme Leader. (Perhaps indicated by the prefix ‘Supreme’.) Khamenei ultimately decides everything, and Khamenei is a brazen hardliner. During his presidential inaugural address in 1981, he proclaimed his intention to tackle “deviation, liberalism, and American-influenced leftists” in Iran. In 2005 he reaffirmed the fatwā against Salman Rushdie, the British author of The Satanic Verses.

No matter how moderate a presidential candidate may be, ultimate authority still lies with a handful of unelected and predominantly conservative religious leaders – mostly appointed by the Supreme Leader. (So was born the neologism ‘mullocracy’.) Elections in Iran serve as sobering reminders of this system. It’s a sad truth that Rouhani is likely only providing a ‘moderate’ face for a regime that continues to pursue a strongly conservative agenda.

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario whereby Khamenei and his pious retinue surrender any significant powers to an elected president. However, I like many others am still of the opinion that the regime is moving towards its final years. It has, like the leaders who occupy it, gotten old and grown a long beard. These aren’t the good old days of ’79: Thanks to the internet and other methods of communication, censorship is near to impossible (just look to North Korea, a country that is also encountering great trouble in its effort to maintain its ‘information cordon’) and the Iranian people know an abuse of power when they see one.

A clash between the conservative and progressive factions in the country is inevitable. Whilst this may not yield a 1979-style revolution, the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people (especially of the youth, who now comprise a considerable percentage of the Iranian population) are becoming too loud to ignore. Iran is moving into times of change, and it’s down to Khamenei to decide how long or short – smooth or turbulent – this path will be. As a result, more and more observers are coming to realise the vital importance of being Khamenei.

About the Author
Brad is from the UK and is currently pursuing a career in journalism.
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