2009: Modern Iran

Lynsey Addario/VII, for The New York Times




Kelly Golnoush Niknejad ’05, M.A.’06

Editor-in-chief Kelly Golnoush Niknejad founded the online outlet Tehran Bureau in 2008 to provide serious independent journalism about Iran and its influence on the Muslim world. Now partnering with PBS’s “Frontline,” Tehran Bureau has also featured reporting from other alumni, including Leila Darabi ’06, Rasha Elass ’05, Alexandra Haggiag ’05, Jim Higdon ’05 and Thor Neureiter ’11.

Tehran Bureau – June 5, 2009
“The Supreme Leader’s One Vote”

By Mea Cyrus

Back in 1997, many believe that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had made up his mind to back the conservative cleric Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri in the presidential campaign, even after it became quite clear that the general support was trending towards Mohammad Khatami. It was even rumored that when casting his vote, Khamenei took the ballot and wrote at an angle to show that he was writing Nateq Nouri!

On the other hand, some people like Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani give themselves credit that they managed to convince Khamenei that people were going to elect Khatami and that it would be an embarrassing crisis for the supreme leader’s image if he asked — more like ordered — people to vote for one candidate and the people voted for another instead. Some have claimed that Rafsanjani talked Khamenei out of overt public support of Nateq Nouri at that time by showing him polling data that proved Iranians wanted Khatami.

As history has a tendency to repeat itself, this time round, the supreme ayatollah is doing exactly the same thing – maybe he blames Rafsanjani for what happened in Iran in the eight years under President Khatami — and this time Rafsanjani seems unable or unwilling to convince him again not to support one side of the campaign. He has been steadfast in showing his unprecedented support for Ahmadinejad’s government by calling it “the best administration” in the past 30 years. He has virtually ridiculed former presidents by saying Ahmadinejad has upheld Islamic values much better than a cleric. (Three cleric presidents, including himself, ran the country 24 of the 30 years of the Islamic Republic.)

But is it really about Islamic values this time or has he found himself beleaguered by a powerful bunch that might even try to unseat him if things go very wrong?

Today Rafsanjani has a firm political foothold by having the Expediency Council and the Council of Experts in his grip. Perhaps the thought of having Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister, rise to claim the No. 2 position in the country is all the more unsettling for that reason. Perhaps Khamenei is right to be concerned: Mousavi was not just any premier. He was smart and wily enough to hide behind Khomeini when mounting a successful resistance against the then-president — yes, Khamenei.

Ayatollah Khomeini, for his part, was smart enough to support Mousavi in a bid to control Khamenei as president. That was why many people thought 20 years of Mousavi’s absence from all walks of “real” political life in Iran had something to do with their historic feud back in the Khomeini days. Therefore, it was not unexpected that one of the first things Khamanei did was to abolish the post of prime minister when he was rising to become the supreme power broker.

That is why the supreme leader has thrown all his political weight behind Ahmadinejad. To him, Mousavi has a proven record of resisting his wishes and defying him; so Khamenei seems to be following the saying, “You should not test a tested person.” That is why he decided to criticize Mousavi after a televised presidential debate rather than Ahmadinejad, even when the majority of the 50 million viewers thought the time had come for Ahmadinejad to be told off by the leader, since he crossed all red lines and said things nobody ever believed they would hear from a president’s mounth on a live television program. In that debate, Ahmadinejad accused all previous cabinets and many senior figures of graft. He even went on the personal attack, pointing his finger at Rafsanjani, Nateq Nouri (head of Special Inspections Office of the Supreme Leader), Nateq Nouri’s son and many others by calling them corrupt and claiming they had only filled their own pockets for the past 30 years.

By now, one would think that the integrity and the good name of the Iranian electoral system was more important to Khamenei than Ahmadinejad’s bid for reelection. But when the supreme leader decided to criticize Mousavi publicly by saying, “Those who in the presidential debate claimed Iran has lost its standing among other countries in the world [under Ahmadinejad] are wrong,” little doubt was left that he wants Ahmadinejad to lead the tenth government no matter if the survival or existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran is at stake. Or is this all a smart ploy to confuse the West to buy some more time to push ahead with a special existential insurance strategy for a clerical regime?

In many ways, Khamenei is handling the most important election in the past thirty years; his miscalculation could bring the regime close to a point of no return. Considering all the miscalculations that have been going on in Iran in recent years, the big question is this: Does the supreme leader know what he’s doing by putting all his eggs in Ahmadinejad’s basket?

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