Danny Citrinowicz
Danny Citrinowicz

Khamenei’s Dangerous Gamble

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Contrary to the public image he has developed over the years, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is considered a relatively moderate leader. The constant fear of an external or internal threat to the regime, troubled by a future of Shia in a world without revolutionary regime in Tehran, and especially the Iran-Iraq War, which almost led to Iran’s surrender, has all culminated into Khamenei developing a prudent policy. A policy that is at times seems inconsistent with the radical conception of the Islamic Revolution.

This moderate view is expressed mainly in Iranian foreign policy, and specifically Tehran’s relationship with Washington. Phrases such as “drinking from a poisoned chalice” or “heroic flexibility” gave Khamenei a ladder to climb down from his dogmatic view of “the Great Satan” and allowed, for example, to justify in his view the direct encounters between the United States and Iran that led to the JCPOA.

Also in his domestic policy, Khamenei has also used a relatively pragmatic policy, compared to the regime’s public dogmatic principles in Iran. Beyond the phenomenon of “escapism” in Iran whereby the Iranian resident can live relatively free in his home (as opposed to the public sphere), even in the political aspect, Khamenei has allowed relatively moderate candidates to run for elections for the Majles or the Iranian presidency. Khamenei himself learned a significant lesson during the 2009 “Green Revolution” that sparked a huge wave of protests across Iran that put the regime at risk, and he seemed to realize that any intervention for any candidate could take the masses to the streets. 

Even when it came to the use of the force, Khamenei has been a very conservative leader. Iran has not fought since the war Iraq imposed on it in 1980, and the proxy concept that Iran established, led by the late Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, was intended in part to enable Iran to achieve its objectives, without directly using force. Iran based its defense concept mainly on building capabilities and establishing deterrence against its rivals in the region, and when it exercised force and suffered losses (as in Syria), the Iranian leadership rushed to withdraw its troops back to Iran.

Thus, Khamenei managed to simultaneously manifest “checks and balances” within the state while maintaining the regime’s supposed revolutionary image that consequently spurred on more moderate elements in Iran that could also find a place to address the regime.

In recent years, however, there seems to have been a long-lasting erosion in Khamenei’s moderate posture.

Khamenei’s transformation can be seen on three different fronts:

  • The domestic political front Khamenei did not allow any candidate who is not a “real conservative” (or one suspected of being relatively moderate) to run in the presidential election. For example, even Ali Larijani who was chairman of the Majles and suspected of having ties to former President Rouhani was disqualified. Khamenei was seeking to ensure the election of Ibrahim Raisi as president, and this move correlates with the disqualifications of moderate candidates in the Majles elections that secured a majority for conservatives in this institution.
  • The foreign policy Front (1) –   Khamenei filled the Iranian delegation for the nuclear negotiations with hard liners that (unlike the past) will not be withdrawal, even at the cost of not returning to the agreement. The Iranian leader’s unequivocal claims regarding a return to the original agreement, his unwillingness to discuss additional issues or concessions, Iran’s unprecedented progress in enrichment under his guidance and the unwillingness to approve direct talks between Iranian and American representatives make the chance of a nuclear deal extremely unlikely.  
  • The foreign policy Front (2)- The appointment of Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his close connection to the Quds Force “guarantee” an aggressive foreign policy, one that will not help Iran improve its political image with or without a return to a nuclear agreement.
  • The economic front If in the past Khamenei’s claim to build independent economic capabilities in Iran so as not to rely on the West (“the economy of resistance”) was more of a “recommendation“, today it seems that the establishment in Iran are acting as if this recommendation is a “directive”, and that there is a genuine apparent intention to build an Iranian “autarkic economy” that would supposedly reduce Iran’s dependence on foreign investment.
  • The use of force – in stark contrast to Khamenei’s caution in exerting direct force by the Iranian forces, in recent years, especially in the Persian Gulf, there has been a real erosion in this conservative conception of Khamenei. Iran is acting aggressively and almost publicly against tankers traffic in the Gulf region. 

Some of the reasons that caused Khamenei’s perceptual change can be assessed:

  •   For Khamenei, there is almost no greater threat of revolution than a “Cultural Intrusion” of the West into Iran, so there was a great concern that a “Rouhani-like” president might continue this mission, taking advantage of Khamenei’s bad health.
    1. A desire to secure the identity of his successor – Khamenei was deeply concerned that moderate elements within the Conservative ranks would be able to gain a real grip on the bodies that are responsible for choosing his successor.  To that end, Khamenei sought to ensure that all those parties were removed from the positions of power so that their influence on the electoral process would be minimal.    
  • A sense of betrayal Khamenei paid a high personal price when he agreed to the JCPOA Agreement. He allowed direct negotiations with the Americans, approved a deal that “rolled back” Iran’s nuclear program, feared that the nuclear negotiations would spill over into other issues, and above all, the killing of his protege, Qassem Sulimani. Khamenei seems to be determined that he will not undergo such a humiliation again, and that the tiny amount of trust he still has of the U.S. administration  has been almost entirely erased.

In the face of these developments, it is necessary to remember the unprecedented challenges that Iran faces at the present time – it is not only the deteriorating economic situation because of the sanctions, but Iran is also suffering greatly from the coronavirus pandemic, extraordinary natural disasters, severe shortages of water and electricity supplies, and air pollution (especially in the capital Tehran) that severely harm the quality of life of the everyday Iranian citizen. Khamenei’s political and political moves do not only help Iran deal with these problems, but also have negatively affected the government’s ability to strengthen its position in the face of the Iranian citizen.

Khamenei has managed to create “unity of ranks” in the leadership institutions (the leader’s office, the presidency and the Majles), all of them are speaking with one voice, but, alongside this success, it is important to remember that this time there is no “scapegoat”. Therefore, the same “unity of the ranks” that was so important to Khamenei is likely to be a double-edged sword should the current regime, by implementing Khamenei instructions, find it difficult to get out of the dire economic situation. By relying only on independent economic capabilities, it will be very hard to rebuild its economy especially without a return to the nuclear agreement. Indeed, the ideological gap between the regime and much of the Iranian public is deepening and widening.

While the regime in Iran is still very strong and knows very well how to“dismantle” the strongholds of its opponents. The opponents struggle to create a “critical mass” of demonstrations, and it is doubtful that there is a regime in Iran that has had to deal with such a diverse and multitude of problems without being able to respond to them with a real response.

In many ways, alongside the state of the centrifuges in Natanz, it is also necessary to understand the mindset of the “merchant bazaar in Tehran” or other various minorities in Iran.

In the last years, given his deep concern about the future of the Islamic Revolution and his desire to ensure its continuity “in his image”, Khamenei seems to have abandoned some of the moderate policy that have characterized him over the years that have allowed him and Iran to “keep its head above water” despite all the challenges posed at its doorstep. This is perhaps Khamenei’s biggest gamble since he was elected leader, which could quickly backfire for Iran and the current regime.  

About the Author
23+ years of experience in 8200, IDI Research Division and the Israeli Embassy in the US. Retired from the Israel Defense Forces Senior fellow at the Abba Eban institute.
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