For Ayatollah Khamenei, the reformists are the most dangerous institutional enemy. They intend to change the nature of the regime from within, opening it to a more democratic version where the power of the Supreme Leader would be challenged in the name of popular sovereignty. He was able to neutralize the movement that had brought President Khatami to the forefront in 1997 and then control the Green Movement by gradually suffocating it and imprisoning its leaders (Moussavi and Karrubi), through political repression (around 150 dead and 4500 tortured and several thousand exiled outside Iran). Ayatollah Khamenei's dexterity in overcoming the internal opposition was paradoxically based on the Presidents, who, until now, have had to assume the deficiencies of the system and exempt him from responsibility for the consequences of his foreign policy. With the Trump era and his exit from the Iranian nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the dissension between reformists and conservatives faded, but by an apparent paradox, Ayatollah Khamenei appears as the sole leader, now responsible for Iran's marginalization on the international scene. So far, he has avoided war with the United States, but the extremely fragile economic situation and the obvious impoverishment of Iranian society progressively delegitimizes a power that has nothing to offer but decline and descent into hell. Nevertheless, this regime is less and less contested because of a feeling of fatality and loss of economic power of the middle classes, suffering from American politics and corruption, but also of the intransigence of the theocracy in power. As long as Ayatollah Khamenei is in office, unless there is a war with the West, his power remains uncontested but delegitimized, due to the lack of an opponent and the absence of a credible opposition to his supremacy.
Ayatollah Khamenei's personality has undoubtedly been decisive in the shift to a more authoritarian form of power in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeyni's death in 1989. Beyond this personal dimension, we can only observe the durability of authoritarian powers in Iran since the period of modernization of Reza Shah. The latter was an autocrat, creator of a centralized and modern state, breaking with the past in many ways but rooted in despotism. Similarly, his son Mohammad-Réza Shah, after a period of gestation, and following the nationalist movement of Mossadegh (1950-53) and the Anglo-American coup to overthrow him, became a modernizing despot, especially after the elimination of large landowners by the agrarian reform of the early 1960s. The 1979 Revolution was largely the result of his excesses and hubris. This led to an Islamic theocracy and began with the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini and unanimous populism under his reign. The war unleashed by Iraq in 1980 consolidated his power by uniting Iranian society against the common enemy that had invaded part of the territory to the southwest, Khuzistan, Iran's main oil province. When the founder of the new regime died in 1989, Khamenei, then a cleric, was elected by the "Council of Experts" and gradually forged an autocratic identity under the name of Ayatollah Khamenei. Like the Shah, he has gone through the turbulence of protest, both under Khatami's presidency (1997-2005) and also by the Green Movement (2009), which had disputed his legitimacy.
In a sense, these authoritarian personalities have pushed the Iranian state and society towards a defensive posture; in another sense, the very nature of this oil-rentier state does nothing but push towards authoritarian rule, facilitating the task of despotic power holders through an autonomous oil rent vis-à-vis the economic activity of the society.
Ayatollah Khamenei, imbued with Islamist and Third World ideology marked by anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism and the pro-Palestinian tendency of the 1960s and 1970s, succeeded in creating a regional dynamic centred on Syria (supporting the Assad regime), Lebanon (supporting Hezbollah), Iraq (defending the various Iraqi Shiite tendencies) and even some Palestinian factions (Hamas). The combination of authoritarianism and a power that takes society hostage, notably by Basij and various organizations resulting from the 1979 revolution, constitutes in large the contribution of Ayatollah Khamenei. He was able to lay the foundations of a personal power in spite of the strong contestation from various fringes of society (in particular the middle classes, especially in their youth).
The despotic nature of the Iranian oil state, at least as much as the authoritarian personality of Ayatollah Khamenei, built together a power marked by a dynamic that perpetuates and reinforces autocracy. This dynamic makes it easier for the Pasdaran Army to take over in the eventuality of the current Supreme Leader stepping down. Under the aegis of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Pasdaran Army has evolved into a gigantic economic conglomerate beyond the reach of the legal government and endowed with all the privileges assuring it financial power free from any legal control.
Ayatollah Khamenei showed acute political intelligence in the face of power crisis, whether after the death of Ayatollah Khomeyni, the advent of reformist President Khatami in 1997, the student protest movement in 1999, the advent of President Ahmadinejad (he tried to establish an autonomous power base before the end of his second term in 2013) and above all, the Green Movement in 2009. Whenever his power was challenged, he acted wisely, faced with presidents who were unfamiliar with the subtleties of power (notably Khatami, more of a teacher than a political figure). He knew how to use the various levers of power (the judicial system under his control, the Pasdaran army which he bought with bribes, the revolutionary or pious funds) in order to control his internal opponents. The nature of the Iranian regime favours opposition between the President and the Supreme Leader: the legitimacy of the former is popular (with the restrictions of a regime where the election reflects the state of opinion even if it is not democratic) while the latter is theocratic. Ayatollah Khamenei had to face, and was able to neutralize, not only the reformers, but also Ayatollah Rafsandjani, who aimed to open up the political regime at the cost of the Supreme Leader's marginalization. The more political opponents were dominated, the more the authoritarian tendencies of "velayat-e faqih" theocracy increased and the more Ayatollah Khamenei was confirmed in his role as Supreme Leader. While in 1997 the civil society’s awakening movement and the Khatami presidency had for a time challenged the autocratic nature of power, the President's lack of political courage, his lack of political experience, but also the fear of bloody repression by the Basij paralysed opposition to Islamic theocracy. Ayatollah Khamenei has been able to consolidate his personalised power, and now rules unchallenged. However, in the face of American hegemony in the region, after the United States left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with Iran, and the European imposition of sanctions that followed, the regime is facing a new generalised crisis.
Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne
Copyright : ATTA KENARE / AFP