These days, Ali Khamenei must be a happy man. He has launched a campaign to cast himself as “Imam”, a title that Iranian Shiites reserve for the 12 descendants of Ali Ibn Abi-Talib, the fourth Caliph of Islam.
By calling himself “Imam”, Khamenei hopes to put himself above grand Ayatollahs as the highest echelon of Shiite clergy.
The title would enable Khamenei to pretend equality with the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi who is to return to rule the world.
Over the past two years, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his associates have spread the rumour that the Mahdi is about to return and that the faithful should look to him, and implicitly not to Khamenei, for instructions.
By becoming “Imam”, Khamenehi who has not completed a theological education and never worked as a theologian, creates a personal niche outside the Shiite hierarchy.
However, few in Iran would take his “Imam” title seriously.
Not a single Iranian cleric, even among those working for the government, is yet prepared to attach the title to Khamenei.
On 11 August, the Iranian daily Kayhan was forced to quote only two sources supporting the “Imam” title for Khamenei. One is the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He is quoted as saying “I kiss the hand of Imam Khamenei”. The other is an unnamed “leader of the Muslim Brotherhood” who told Kayhan “Imam Khamenei is a source of inspiration for our movement.” However, most Iranians regard Nasrallah as an employee of the Iranian government and not an authority on Islam. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, Iranians see it as a militant, anti-Shiite outfit.
In any case, among Arabs, the title of Imam does not have the same meaning and resonance as in Iran.
Khamenei needs the title to complete his destruction of key institutions of the Islamic Republic , something he must have been plotting for years.
He started implementing his plan in June 2009 when he declared Ahmadinejad winner of the presidential election before the counting of the votes had been completed.
By doing so, he also destroyed the authority of the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, a body that has the authority to approve election results.
The message was clear: It was Khamenei and not the voters who would decide who becomes president. Ahmadinejad became the first President of the Islamic Republic to start a term not as the choice of the people but as someone appointed by the “Supreme Guide”.
Even that was not enough for Khamenei. Last spring he destroyed what was left of the president’s authority by vetoing Ahmadinejad’s decision to sack the Minister of Intelligence and Security. Again, the message was clear: It is the “Supreme Guide” not the president who hires and fires ministers.
Legally, the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, should approve ministerial appointments. However, in this case, the Majlis was scripted out and the sacked minister returned to his post without going through the parliamentary procedure.
Earlier this month, Khamenei hammered the nail further in by ordering Ahmadinejad to scrap his plan for abolishing the Oil Ministry and reviving the National Iranian Oil Company. Ahmadinejad was then forced to appoint a general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as the new Oil Minister.
Next, Khamenei turned his attention to the Majlis. In public statements, he made it clear that the Majlis was to obey his orders. Earlier this month, Ali Ardeshir Larijani, the Speaker of the Majlis, spelled out the new situation thus: “It is the sacred duty of the Majlis to absolutely obey the instructions of the Supreme Guide.”
The Majlis, supposed to be the legislature under the Islamic Republic Constitution, was transformed into a consultative organ for the self-styled “Imam.”
Ali Motahari, a brother-in-law of Ali Ardeshir and a member of the Majlis, put it this way: “The parliament has been reduced to an appendage of the Supreme Guide’s office.”
Khamenei’s next move was to destroy the Expediency Council, another constitutional organ, by appointing a new committee to assume its tasks.
The judiciary, supposed to be independent under the constitution, has also been destroyed.
First, Khamenei appointed Sadeq Larijani a junior mullah with little legal experience, as Chief Justice. On a number of occasions, the new Chief Justice declared in public that the judiciary had taken this or that decision on “instructions from the Supreme Guide”.
Over the past few weeks, Khamenei has been in campaign mode, speaking at public gatherings and receiving whoever wishes to listen to him. He uses these occasions to hammer one point in: the Islamic Republic is a one-man show in which the “Supreme Guide” is not a primus inter pares but the embodiment of the state.
Without knowing it, Khamenei is repeating the dictum of Louis XIV: I am the state!
To make sure that those heading the various organs of the Islamic Republic do not have a personal support base, Khamenei has promoted individuals born outside Iran and thus lacking the classical network of family and clan relationships.
The Speaker of the Islamic Majlis and the Chief Justice were both born in Najaf, Iraq. Also born in Najaf was Hashemi Shahroudi, a mullah named as head of the Arbitration Council. More interestingly, the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Muhammad Ali Aziz-Jaafari was also born in Najaf.
According to Iranian researcher Babak Zamani, more than 600 foreign-born militants occupy key positions at all levels of the Islamic Republic, including Khamenei’s office.
Khamenei’s appetite for absolute power knows no bounds. He has just made it clear that members of the next Islamic Majlis, due to be elected next spring, would have to be pre-approved by his office.
He is even intervening in such details as foreign trips by officials. From now on, all such visits should be pre-approved by his office. This is why Ahmadinejad does not know whether he will be allowed to make his annual trip to New York, something he enjoys immensely, according to his entourage.
Former presidents, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami have had their passports withdrawn and cn no longer leave the country without permission from the “Imam”.
In a sense, Khamenei’s move to assume absolute power is welcome. Such terms as “republic” and “ parliament” were nothing but lies in a system based on “Walayat al-Faqih” or absolute rule by a mullah. In such a system, the president, ministers, and members of parliaments are little more than puppets in the hands of the “ Supreme Guide”.
For better or for worse, Khamenei has decided to expose the truth of the system. That is a high-risk strategy because it tells Iranians that, if they are unhappy with things as they are, the only option is to get rid of the system as a whole.