When Iranians want to highlight someone’s isolation, they use the proverb: “Ali is left with his pond!”
The proverb was on many minds last Monday during a live telecast of ceremonies in which Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Guide” urged “the elite” to close ranks behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The cameras did their best to show that, in this instance at least, Ali was not alone at his pond. The “Supreme Guide” was surrounded by men in uniforms, sporting ferocious beards. There were a dozen or so African dignitaries in colorful tribal attires. (What they were doing there we never fond out!) A smattering of officials, among them a subdued Ahmadinejad, was there to furnish the void. A band of teen-agers were also on hand to chant:” Ali shall not remain alone!”
Nevertheless, viewers across Iran could not help feeling that Ali was, indeed, alone.
The names of absent officials and dignitaries would make a good part of the Khomeinist elite’s who-is-who, among them former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami. Of the so-called “maraje al-taqlid” (sources of emulation), senior mullahs who claim to be shepherds of the flock, not one was present. Many senior military figures were also absent. The impression created was that, suddenly, many who once did seek the company of the “Supreme Guide” now shunned him.
Before the crisis triggered by Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election on 12 June, events presided over by Khamenei had always been occasions for demonstrating elite unity. The message was that although the ruling elite may be divided into rival factions, it remained solidly united around the “Supreme Guide”.
Now, however, Khamenei himself is regarded as a factional leader. Although the current protest movement was triggered by opposition to Ahmadinejad, the president has almost faded into the background. Until last month, Khamenei had tried to stay above the fray, and limited his public appearances to half a dozen a year. In the past six weeks, however, he has made almost a dozen appearances, including a rare sermon at the Friday prayers on the Tehran University campus. Jettisoning his role as arbiter, Khamenei has become a player in a deadly game that must end with winners and losers.
Not surprisingly, it is Khamenei, both as a person and as holder of the position of “Supreme Guide”, who is targeted by dissidents within the Khomeinist elite.
Some of these dissidents have already fled to the West and thus feel free to attack Khamenei with no ifs and buts.
Others like Rafsanjani and Khatami have not yet attacked Khamenei by name but have made it clear that they no longer regard his ruling as final on anything. Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the former prime minister and the defeated presidential candidate who claims he was robbed of victory, has tried to cultivate his own brand of ambiguity. Nevertheless, he, too, has rejected Khamenei’s ruling, thus questioning his authority as “Supreme Guide”.
While the faction led by Khamenei has certainly been weakened, there is no sign that the coalition of dissident factions, led by the ” muraba’a manhous” ( the cursed quartet), that is to say Mousavi, Khatami, Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karrubi, has benefited.
The “quartet” would have to make some crucial decisions before it could develop a credible strategy.
The first is to decide what it is precisely that it wants.
Ahmadinejad’s re-election was no different from the 30 other elections that the Khomeinist regime has held at various levels since 1980.
All six presidents of the Islamic Republic were supposedly elected with more than two-thirds of the votes. Some , like Muhammad-Ali Rajai and Ali Khamenei were credited with more than 90 per cent of the votes. Four years ago, Ahmadinejad was declared elected with 62 per cent, and no one made a fuss. Both Rafsanjani and Khatami, now riding the wave of dissent, won with fanciful numbers of votes.
Under the Khomeinist constitution, once the Council of Guardians and the “Supreme Guide” have endorsed an election result, it is no longer contested on political grounds. To be sure, any citizen could still lodge a legal suit at the Supreme Court against the results.
So far, however, neither Mousavi nor Karrubi have pursued the matter through legal channels, preferring to challenge the results in the political arena. They have attacked the Council of Guardians in numerous statements but have not filed a suit against its members for dereliction of constitutional duties.
The ambiguity of their opposition to Khamenei is also counter-productive. Do they think Khamenei has acted outside his constitutional prerogatives? If yes, they could seek his impeachment and removal from power through the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 mullahs of which, ironically enough, Rafsanjani is Chairman.
Legally speaking, nothing prevents Rafsanjani to propose Khamenei’s impeachment at the next session of the assembly scheduled for September.
However, if the “quartet” is opposed to the concept of ” Walayat al-Faqih”, Rafsanjani should not remain chairman of the organ that supervises the activities of the ” Supreme Guide.” Instead, he should propose constitutional amendments, or, perhaps, even a new constitution, abolishing ” Walayat al-Faqih”.
In plain language, the question is: do you want to get rid of Ahmadinejad and, perhaps, even Khamenei, or do you want to change the regime?
The question is not fanciful.
For if the objective is change of personnel, it is obvious that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are more natural leaders of the messianic Khomeinist movement than Rafsanjani or Mousavi.
On the other hand, if the objective were regime change, again the “quartet”, having been key figures of the ruling elite for decades, would not appear as natural leaders of the overthrow movement.
The ” quartet” cannot dance around the issue forever.
Eventually, it will have to either return to the Khomeinist fold, its tail between its legs, or join a broader movement for change.
The Khomeinist regime as known since the 1980s is dead, and Iran has already entered a period of transition. This transition could produce a leaner and meaner Khomeinist regime which, having freed itself of cumbersome democratic pretensions, could pursue an agenda of class warfare and xenophobia with greater vigor. However, the transition could also lead to a genuinely pluralist Iran which, having freed itself of the Islamist pretensions of the Khomeinist ideology, can return to the international mainstream as a modern nation-state rather than as a vehicle for a crazy ideology.
Amir Taheri’s new book ” The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution”,is published by Encounter Books in New York and London