Istanbul, Turkey – It looked like business as usual when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei began a nine-day tour of the western province of Kermanshah last week. But Ayatollah Khamenei appears to be setting the stage for political changes that will further shrivel the democratic aspect of the Islamic Republic.
On the road, as usual, Khamenei excoriated Iran’s enemies – the United States, Israel, and all the West – and praised the martyrs of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and the war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Khamenei also seemed to be giving a get-out-the vote pep talk to Iranians in anticipation of parliamentary elections next March, and a presidential vote due in 2013.
“It’s the people themselves who decide. They go to the polls, they make their choice; things are run by the people,” Khamenei told a large crowd last Wednesday, as he ticked off reasons why Iran’s Islamic system was superior and indestructible, according to a simultaneous English translation by state-run PressTV.
All problems, Khamenei said then, were solved because of this “participation, the faith of the people in the Islamic establishment, [their] steadfastness and their loyalty, [so that they] consider themselves the owners and governors of the country.”
But by Sunday, those sacred principles appeared to be giving way to a less democratic future.
Khamenei – whose title is meant to confer the authority of God’s interim representative on earth – suggested that the post of Iran’s directly elected president might be abolished, to be replaced by a premier chosen by parliament.
“The current political system of the country is presidential, and the president is elected directly by the people. This is a good and effective system,” Khamenei reassured another large crowd on Sunday. “But if one day, possibly in the distant future, it is felt that a parliamentary system is more suited for electing those responsible for the executive branch, then there would be no problems in making changes in the system.”
From outside Iran, that might appear to be a subtle change.
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But inside Iran, resurrection of the post of prime minister – which existed for the first decade of the revolution, until 1989 – would mark a further decline of democracy.
Such a decision would come in the context of the divisive six-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – and the violent aftermath of his fraudulent 2009 reelection – which has caused political mayhem, especially among conservatives.
It would also come as Mr. Ahmadinejad has mounted several challenges to Khamenei, and proven himself to be a gutsy street-fighter willing to damage the regime’s reputation to preserve his own. His closest aides have been accused of sorcery and leading a “deviant current.”
Khamenei’s comments “reflect … a nearly decade-long conservative, undemocratic trend in Iranian politics where political change has been engineered and managed,” writes Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington.
“Should Iran decide to eliminate the post of a directly elected president, the primary role of a reinstated premiership would be to execute the Supreme Leader’s directives,” Mr. Marashi writes on the Tehran Bureau website. “This was – and continues to be – what is expected from Ahmadinejad. His increasing intransigence has only sped up an otherwise steady moving process toward the domestic vision for Iran that many unelected officials hold: more Islamic than republican.”
The possibility of such substantial change harkened back more than two decades, when Iran’s Constitution was tweaked by the leader of the revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini changed the Constitution to pave the way for a mid-ranking cleric with less popular support – in this case Khamenei, who had been president twice in the 1980s – to assume the supreme post.
Khomeini passed away months later, and Khamenei was elevated to “ayatollah” almost immediately. But he had neither the charisma nor religious learning to fully grasp the reins of leadership, in the view of many more-senior clerics.
“Of course, any change and modernization and reviewing of policies must be based on Islamic principles,” Khamenei said on Sunday, according to a transcript posted on Khamenei’s official webpage. “The changes must also conform with the Constitution,” he said, and would be made “without deviation from the path” of the revolution.
Insight into plans for upcoming elections
Khamenei’s words may provide an early clue to how Iran’s hardline leadership will deal with the upcoming elections, which would be the first nationwide vote since the star-crossed exercise of 2009.
Millions of Iranians, wearing green of the opposition Green Movement and carrying signs that read ‘Where’s my vote?” took to the streets that year to protest the officially announced landslide for Ahmadinejad. In the lethal crackdown, scores of pro-democracy Iranians were killed, many raped, thousands arrested, and their actions described as “against God” in show trials.
As a result, some Green Movement leaders say the opposition will not take part in upcoming elections. Top opposition leaders remain under house arrest, including Mir Hossein Moussavi, the man who challenged Ahmadinejad for the presidency in 2009, and who, ironically, was the last to serve as Iran’s prime minister in the 1980s.
During the later stages of the protests, portraits and banners of Khamenei were regularly torn down, burned, and trampled upon by Iranians, who chanted “Death to Khamenei.”
None of those critical events of 2009 have been mentioned by Khamenei during his tour of Kermanshah, except to describe how the “wisdom” of the people – and the vigilance of the basiji militiamen – came together to stamp out the “sedition” and thwart the plots of foreign enemies to destroy the revolution.
“Our Western enemies should know that this establishment possesses strength and power thanks to the participation of the people,” Khamenei said in one speech.
In another, on Sunday, he said: “In case American officials are living in their dreams, they should know that any wrong move – be it political or security – will face a strong response for the Iranian nation.”
Addressing ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement
Referring to the Occupy Wall Street protests, Khamenei lectured Western officials: “You have turned your back on your own people and you are hated by the majority of your people, but the situation of the Islamic Republic is the opposite…”
Iran was moving toward a nation marked by “justice, freedom, [and] giving a role to play in … determining their destiny,” Khamenei averred. Meanwhile, Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya showed “they pursue evil goals,” and so “we decisively say that the kind of democracy that is common in the West is for the most part fake and shaky.”
Khamenei also blamed the US for fanning “Iranophobia,” while losing ground to what he calls the “Islamic Awakening” of the Arab Spring people power revolutions that have toppled dictators this year in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Rarely mentioned in Khamenei’s worldview is the fact that Iran played virtually no role in those events, nor, it would appear, in inspiring them with their own 1979 revolution, as he claims.
If anything, antigovernment protesters in those countries often say they were partially inspired by the pro-democracy street protests in Iran in 2009 – not by the lethal government crackdown.
Also rarely mentioned by Khamenei are the months-long antigovernment protests in Syria, which threaten the rule of Iran’s close ally President Bashar al-Assad. With more than 3,000 dead in Syria, according to the UN, Iran considers the uprising a case of “sedition” – not “awakening.”
“There are times when I look at Khamenei’s speeches, and I think – how shall I put it diplomatically? – he has his own very particular views about what’s happening in the Middle East that don’t always reflect what’s going on on the ground,” says Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at RAND Corp., in Arlington, Va. “There is this sense of self-confidence in Iran, among certain elements of the Iranian government, that is misplaced.”