Just a couple weeks before Iran’s presidential election, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his allies in Iran’s military/security complex managed to suppress even some of the most loyal regime actors in order to tighten their hold on power in Iran. The Guardian Council’s decision to refuse to allow former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to run in the upcoming election was yet another strong indicator that the ruling establishment has no interest in sharing power, no matter how symbolic that power-sharing may be, with anyone who may pose a threat to their complete domination of the Iranian political and economic systems.
But these efforts to select a loyal president go beyond this election alone. At 74, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s death in the next eight years is becoming a more plausible possibility. Khamenei’s allies in the military/security complex cannot afford to have a president in Iran who could pose a potential threat to Iran’s hardline domestic and foreign policies following his demise. As the second most powerful (at least in theory) official in Iran, the president of the Islamic Republic could play a significant role in shaping the debate surrounding the future of the regime following Khamenei’s ultimate departure.
In the past 25 years, Khamenei’s reign in Iran has brought with it great wealth and power for a large segment of Iran’s Shi’ite clergy. Endowments to religious and clerical institutions in Iran have soared under Khamenei’s leadership. Thanks to astronomically high religious grants by the government, mosques and religious centers have mushroomed in Iran’s cities. Friday prayers, while poorly attended, are well organized and well publicized. The holy city of Qom, which hosts Iran’s most prestigious seminaries, has enjoyed a great degree of prominence, even sidelining Najaf, an Iraqi city that has been the traditional epicenter of Shi’ite jurisprudence and religious scholarship.
Meanwhile, the regime has stripped the clergy of much of its independence. Some Iranian grand ayatollahs who criticized Khamenei were placed under house arrest, their mosques and seminaries were attacked, and they were removed from notable positions. The late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri spent years under house arrest after he questioned Khamenei’s religious credentials and criticized the military/security complex’s ties to Khamenei, and he died in political isolation. Even after his death, security forces did not allow his grieving family to hold a public funeral befitting a grand ayatollah. Regardless of pressure, his less-than-official funeral was well attended by large numbers of opposition figures and supporters.
Yes, the Islamic Republic has been very profitable for clergymen who toe the official line, but the true winner of the Khamenei era has been the military/security complex. In 1989, and soon after becoming Iran’s highest authority following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the new Iranian supreme leader chose his close aides and senior staffers from among the top brass of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Intelligence. His close relationship with the military/security complex went back to the days of the Iran–Iraq War, during which Khamenei, as president, maintained optimal ties with key IRGC figures and found a number of close confidants from among their ranks. This bilateral relationship has continued to this day, and both Khamenei and the top brass of the IRGC have mutually benefited from it. For instance, it was with Khamenei’s blessing and the military/security complex’s assistance that an unknown mayor of Tehran named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of the republic in 2005, and later won a disputed reelection in 2009. Large-scale suppression of protesters in the aftermath of the 2009 election would have been impossible without the cooperation of Khamenei and the complex.
The military/security complex in Iran cannot take wild risks. The supreme leader is in his eighth decade, and the military/security complex’s gains can be reversed and the survival of the regime jeopardized after Khamenei. Without a viable candidate to become supreme leader, and without anyone who could be trusted by the complex, the next Iranian president must be selected from among the ranks of loyal cadres. At the very least, the next president should pose no risks to its agenda. And the IRGC, sitting at the helm of this notorious complex, would be unwise to take any risks.