A growing split between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and its President Hassan Rouhani has escalated in recent weeks, leading to verbal attacks and public humiliations. Both men share the same basic goals: to ensure the Islamic Republic’s survival and to bring about its preeminence in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the two leaders are competing for power within the Iranian regime’s narrow Khomeinist circle. This struggle has escalated since Rouhani’s landslide re-election victory in May, in which he garnered 57 percent of the vote and handily defeated conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who many analysts believed was a leading contender to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader. Some observers described the election outcome as a potential turning point for Iran to chart a more moderate course, but this view ignores systemic factors inside the Islamic Republic that stymie such change, as well as Rouhani’s alignment with Khamenei on the issues that matter most for the regime.
Western media outlets portrayed the presidential election as a watershed in the Islamic Republic’s history, one in which the Iranian people chose Rouhani as their champion to pursue a path of reform and moderation. The Guardian, for example, reported that Rouhani’s “powerful mandate” to end international isolation and bring greater freedoms at home “could also have much longer-term implications for Iran’s future, by giving reformists a greater influence over the looming battle to choose a new supreme leader.” The New York Times cited “analysts,” without naming any specific experts, who said that Rouhani’s win “should enable him to strengthen the position of the moderate and reformist faction.”
One of the analysts the Times may have been referencing was Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. Parsi welcomed the election results and drew a sharp distinction between Rouhani and “hardline voices” pushing for more repression at home and hostility abroad.
“President Rouhani’s convincing win is a sharp rebuke to Iran’s unelected institutions that were a significant brake on progress during Rouhani’s first term,” Parsi said, adding that the United States can help change Tehran’s future by engaging with the President.
“For decades, moderates in Iran could not demonstrate the benefits of their moderate policies because of an unwillingness in Washington to play ball and negotiate directly with Tehran,” Parsi added in an article shortly after the election. He also argued that the outcome was a “stunning setback [for] the hardliners in the elections” and an indication that the Iran nuclear deal “could establish a new balance of power in Iran’s internal politics with significant long-term repercussions.”
Some experts have put forth a more subtle argument about Iran’s future that is based on the country’s internal power dynamics rather than its leaders’ ideological differences. Their argument is not based directly on Rouhani’s election victory, although it similarly asserts that reformists led by the President could very well steer the regime in a new direction. Alex Vatanka, Sanam Vakil, and Hossein Rassam recently argued that Rouhani and his circle of technocrats are “hardly impotent” and their capacity to play a significant role in the succession process after Khamenei dies should not be underestimated. They noted that “Rouhani is undeniably pushing back against the IRGC’s penetration of state institutions” and that “the technocrats will not sit idly by as the IRGC attempts to grab more power.” One of their key underlying points was that Khamenei does not have as great an ability to drive events as many assume. They also argued that Rouhani has one big advantage over the Supreme Leader’s allies: “legitimacy among the public,” because the technocrats “come closest to reflecting the aspirations of ordinary Iranians.”
They are correct that Rouhani is pushing back against the regime’s unelected faction, but to what end? Will it actually make a fundamental difference? And while the President does have support among a large portion of the Iranian public, has such support yielded significant change in the past?
Alas, it has not, and a primary reason this is so has received little attention: Iranian Presidents generally become much weaker in their second terms, falling under the control of the Supreme Leader and his institutions. Indeed, every Iranian President who has challenged the regime’s unelected faction since Khamenei became Supreme Leader has been severely damaged. The ongoing rift between Khamenei and Rouhani is showing that the current President is no exception to this pattern.
Thus if history is any guide, a Rouhani-led reformist transition will not come to fruition, and institutions close to the Supreme Leader, like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), will retain their influence. Moreover, even if the Islamic Republic’s system allowed Rouhani to assert his authority in a meaningful way, it would make little difference. He and Khamenei agree on the issues that matter most in Iran. The West would be unwise to bet on Rouhani or his ability to moderate the regime.
War of Words
In an instructive episode in the ongoing Khamenei-Rouhani power struggle, Khamenei publicly humiliated Rouhani in a June speech to senior officials, including the judiciary chief, the parliamentary speaker, and top military brass. The seriousness of the humiliation is underscored by the fact that Rouhani preceded Khamenei on the podium, discussing themes central to his reelection campaign, including the need to attract foreign investment. Khamenei was not moved:
The President has talked at great lengths about the country’s economy, and he’s said, ‘This should be done,’ ‘that should be done.’ But who is he addressing by mentioning the ‘should dos?’ Himself.
Video of the speech shows Rouhani smiling uncomfortably throughout—and the audience bursting out in laughter.
“In 1980-1981, the then-president polarized society in two camps, and divided the country into opponents and supporters; this should not be repeated,” Khamenei added, referring to Iran’s first post-revolution President, Abolhassan Banisadr, who was impeached and later exiled after clashing with the clerical establishment.
Rouhani responded to the comments the following week, saying that the political legitimacy of a religious leader is determined by the “people’s will and invitation.” Supporters of Khamenei, many of whom believe the lifelong appointment to Supreme Leader is divine, did not take kindly to the President’s remarks, and some appeared to lash out. Days later, Rouhani had to be rushed to a car to escape hecklers in Tehran at the Quds rally, an annual pro-Palestinian gathering.
“Rouhani, Banisadr, happy marriage,” protesters chanted in an apparent reference to Khamenei’s speech. Some hecklers even chanted “death to liar” and “death to American mullah.”
Weeks after this episode, Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun, was arrested on July 16 on suspicion of “financial irregularities.” Iran’s judiciary, which is closely aligned with Khamenei, announced the arrest amid growing tensions between both sides. Fereydoun was hospitalized the following day with high blood pressure. There is no indication that Khamenei was involved with the arrest, but the Supreme Leader appoints the head of the judiciary and his office has significant influence over its functions.
What does the escalating dispute between Iran’s Supreme Leader and its President mean? Khamenei wants to contain Rouhani’s post-election popularity and send a warning to him not to overstep his bounds. In other words, the elected government should know its place.
This power struggle is real, but its scale should not be overstated. Rouhani is not questioning the Islamic Republic’s core foundation: velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, the concept of an Islamic system of clerical rule that gives the Supreme Leader ultimate political and spiritual authority. Indeed, the President is a product of the Iranian Revolution and wants to ensure the regime’s survival above all else. Moreover, Rouhani shares Khamenei’s fundamental foreign policy vision to diminish America’s role in the Middle East and achieve regional preeminence. He supports Iran’s ballistic missile program and use of Shi‘a militias across the Middle East—two cornerstones of the regime’s regional strategy. Even if Rouhani did feel differently, Iran’s President, whoever he might be, has little power in forming the country’s foreign, defense, and nuclear policies.
Still, despite shared strategic objectives, Khamenei has given the green light to his supporters to undermine Rouhani. Furthermore, his public, brazen criticisms of the President indicate that the Supreme Leader wants to reassert his authority, particularly as the 78-year-old Ayatollah ponders who will succeed him and carry on his legacy.
Such power struggles between the Supreme Leader and the President are not new, and history suggests that the present one will end as the others did: with the Ayatollah’s unelected faction coming out ahead. Let’s examine that history to see why.
Challenging the Ayatollah
Since Khamenei became Supreme Leader in 1989, every Iranian President has been elected to a second term—and each one clashed with the Ayatollah, only to be severely weakened. Iran’s first President in the Khamenei era, the late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, started off as a close ally of the Supreme Leader. The two wanted to rebuild the country after the devastating Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), but their visions of how to do so steadily diverged. Initially, Khamenei’s mediocre clerical credentials and lack of a strong base of support limited his religious authority and broader influence, empowering Rafsanjani and the presidency. Khamenei responded by forging alliances with IRGC leadership, conservative clerics, and bazaari merchants, and began to push back against Rafsanjani’s agenda during his second term.
Khamenei first supported Rafsanjani’s ambitious national reconstruction plan and united the political right in Iran. The Supreme Leader represented the conservative traditional right—which included religious and clerical entities, those who supported the power of the guardian jurist, and the bazaaris—while the President led the modern right—which was focused on modernizing Iran’s economy and preferred expertise over ideological orthodoxy for managerial positions.1 Rafsanjani and his technocrats, however, also pushed for increased government oversight of the commercial sector and less strict Islamic social regulations, angering those in the Supreme Leader’s camp.
Khamenei’s conservative faction backed Rafsanjani’s economic agenda during his first term (1989-93)—in part because the IRGC was able (and encouraged) to seize control of key aspects of the economy and form a multibillion-dollar industrial empire. The President met with little resistance in privatizing state-owned industries and boosting domestic manufacturing. The conservatives’ main problem was with Rafsanjani’s efforts to soften social restrictions, which they viewed as an attack on Islamic and revolutionary values. In August 1992, for example, the High Council for Cultural Revolution, a government body headed by Rafsanjani, came out with a liberal-themed document that pushed for pragmatism in cultural affairs.2 Experts should be the ones finding solutions in society, the council argued, not the clergy.
Conservative backlash led to the resignations of Mohammed Khatami and Mohammed Hashemi (Rafsanjani’s brother) as culture minister and head of radio and television, respectively. Both men, seen as key engineers of the government’s social liberalization efforts, were replaced by staunch conservatives Mostafa Mir-Salim and Ali Larijani, who publicly endorsed different policies. They and other conservatives whom Khamenei appointed to key posts made it their mission to resist the infiltration of Western culture and values. They allowed activists and Basij militiamen, who fell under the IRGC’s umbrella leadership, to police the streets. These efforts, the IRGC’s growing power (bolstered in part by securing lucrative government contracts), and new election laws that gave Khamenei and his allies effective veto power over political candidates allowed the Supreme Leader’s camp to stymie efforts at reform.
The Khamenei-Rafsanjani alliance fractured in the mid-1990s, when the President began his second four-year term. Rafsanjani proposed higher taxes and greater government regulation of the commercial sector, which threatened the bazaari’s economic weight. A somewhat united political right split into pieces, with traditional conservatives now at odds with the President on both social and economic issues. As a result, Rafsanjani sought greater backing from the left in addition to his modern-right faction. This new coalition performed well in the 1996 parliamentary elections, though it still constituted a minority compared to conservatives. In this environment, Khatami was elected President in 1997 in a landslide victory, winning nearly 70 percent of the vote on a reformist platform.
Many observers at the time thought momentum was with the pragmatists and that a wave of popular support for them would undermine the conservatives—similar to the reactions to Rouhani’s presidency today. Moreover, their claims at the time were not baseless. Some of the rigid cultural and religious rules instituted after 1979 gave way to a bit more life and color, particularly at the municipal level. More attractive public spaces were put in place, for example, and debates were held on women’s subordinate role in society.3
Beneath the surface, however, Khamenei, who became increasingly aligned with IRGC leadership, had built a separate, unelected governing structure outside the purview of the elected government—and even the constitution—that held the real reins of power. The intelligence and security services, amplified by the Basij’s presence on the streets and in the schools, fought what they termed the reformists’ Western “cultural invasion” at every turn. Prominent clergymen and bazaari leaders pushed back against their political and economic initiatives. The Guardian Council, a 12-member body composed of clerics and jurists appointed either directly or indirectly by the Supreme Leader, barred any unseemly candidates from running for office. (It also could veto any legislation passed through parliament.) And the IRGC continued expanding beyond a military role to hold major economic and cultural weight through business ventures and massive financial foundations, forming a symbiotic relationship with Khamenei. This multi-faceted, unelected faction, encompassing the so-called “deep state,” entrenched itself in Iranian society such that it could circumvent or overrule the presidency and parliament.
Still, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance did ease certain restrictions, like censorship rules. But changes at the margins should not distract from the bigger picture. Conservatives intimidated those with whom they disagreed, imprisoned opponents, and shut down reformist newspapers. A breaking point came in July 1999, when one reformist newspaper, Salam, was closed after it published a document suggesting there was a conservative conspiracy to censor pro-Khatami media. Anger over the closure and possible censorship led to widespread student protests, which were met by counter-demonstrations from Basij and allied activists. The protests intensified, as did the rhetoric; conservatives said the students were undermining Islam and the Supreme Leader himself. The IRGC and Basij mobilized their forces into the cities to prevent further unrest.
On July 12, Khatami received a letter signed by 24 top IRGC and Basij commanders who castigated the President for allowing his supporters to criticize the Supreme Leader openly and threaten Iran’s Islamic system. They issued a blunt warning:
How long should we have revolutionary patience while the system is being destroyed? … Mr. President: If you do not make a revolutionary decision and if you do not fulfill your Islamic and national mission today, tomorrow will be far too late…. In the end, we would like to express our utmost respect for your Excellency and to declare that our patience has run out. We cannot tolerate this situation any longer if it is not dealt with.4
The message was simple: If Khatami did not stop the student protesters, the IRGC would bypass his authority and take action itself. Khatami quickly disavowed the protests, and supporters of Khamenei soon flooded the streets to show their devotion to the guardian jurist. In a moment of crisis when some questioned the regime’s legitimacy, the presidency proved powerless, folding to the IRGC—and the Supreme Leader. What power does the President have if military leaders can ignore his office and use force as they see fit?
Khatami easily won re-election in 2001, but he was, as one expert on Iran, Afshon Ostovar, described, a “near-powerless leader.”5 Conservatives blocked all of Khatami’s major initiatives by controlling the most influential state institutions and continuing their coercive tactics. The President also did not have support in the security and intelligence services, evidenced by hardline activists, including some in the police, who stormed a pro-Khatami celebration the day after his re-election and arrested and injured many present. Khatami was especially squeezed when it came to foreign and nuclear policy. He was unable to reach any compromise with the West over the war in Afghanistan or Iran’s nuclear program, which the National Council of Resistance of Iran made public in 2002. Both outreach efforts were suspect because Iran had a history of supporting the Taliban when it was convenient and continued its then-secret nuclear program during Khatami’s presidency. But the main point is that Khatami was unable to try and compromise even if he wanted to do so as long as the Supreme Leader and his allies opposed the initiative. He became an impotent President despite his electoral success and apparent popular support.
Khamenei not only had rifts with reform-minded Presidents; he also clashed with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the firebrand President who served from 2005 to 2013. Ahmadinejad—who became notorious for his belligerent statements about Israel, questioning of the Holocaust, and efforts to ramp up Iran’s nuclear program—had a less pragmatic approach to the Islamic revolution than Khamenei. But he had something in common with his two predecessors: He challenged the Supreme Leader and his allies and lost.
Initially, however, Ahmadinejad had Khamenei’s support. The Basij and the IRGC backed his election victory in 2005 and were suspected of tampering with the vote count on his behalf. Ahmadinejad did not have major public clashes with the Supreme Leader during his first term and had the Ayatollah’s implicit backing during his 2009 re-election. But the two had a public rift in 2011 when Ahmadinejad tried to fire then-Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, a Khamenei ally. The Supreme Leader ordered him reinstated, but Ahmadinejad did not act for 11 days until Khamenei indicated that the President was also expendable. The two subsequently clashed over cabinet appointments and Ahmadinejad even decided not to hold cabinet meetings for a time to protest Moslehi’s presence. The President, Supreme Leader, and their allies had a tense relationship that continues today. When push came to shove, however, the Supreme Leader got his way.
One reason for this clash is that Ahmadinejad is a second-generation revolutionary who appears less committed to velayat-e faqih, making him more likely to defy Khamenei than those who served in the early years after the 1979 revolution—including Rouhani. Despite this fact, however, Ahmadinejad could do very little as President to challenge the Supreme Leader’s power.
Rouhani was first elected in 2013, and Western media outlets immediately portrayed him as a reformer. One reason for this belief was that he had a bold plan as a focal point of his campaign: to negotiate an international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, thus lifting the punishing sanctions and rescuing the country’s economy. The idea was considered “moderate” because it necessitated negotiating with the United States and European countries, a red line for some in the Iranian regime (though not for the Supreme Leader), and making concessions on Tehran’s nuclear program—which was covertly underway during both Rafsanjani and Khatami’s tenures. (The program was also underway while Rouhani was Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2005 and Iran’s Chief Nuclear Negotiator from 2003 to 2005.)
One point that some observers miss is that Rouhani would not have been able to strike a nuclear deal without the Supreme Leader’s blessing. The President did not undermine Khamenei by signing the accord; to the contrary, he needed the Ayatollah’s backing. To portray it as a harbinger of major change is to misread the situation. Furthermore, the agreement has been a huge boon for the Supreme Leader and his allies—more so than for the Iranian people and moderate forces.
The hobbled regime was able to, through sanctions relief, strengthen its military, bolster its foreign policy adventurism, and pursue business interests through companies and foundations linked to groups like the IRGC. Under the deal, Khamenei also secured Iran’s status as a nuclear-threshold state in about a decade, got a provision that weakened a United Nations Security Council resolution on Tehran’s ballistic missile development, and lifted a U.N. embargo on his country’s ability to buy or export conventional arms in five years. Moreover, the regime was better able to target opposition groups and activists. And perhaps most significantly, the grumblings of Iranians unhappy with their government for their economic situation largely dissipated with the deal. With the system in place, Khamenei, perhaps counter intuitively, became more secure and entrenched.
“Ayatollah Khamenei has emerged as the single most powerful man in the Middle East,” Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour told the Wall Street Journal in August 2016. “It will take years to assess the full impact of the nuclear deal on the Middle East and in Iran internally, but the hope that the deal would weaken Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards so far hasn’t been borne out.”
Beyond the nuclear question, Rouhani clearly differs from Khamenei on issues like economic interdependence, international engagement, and the extent of Islam in Iran’s culture. He is challenging the Supreme Leader at a tactical level—but only a tactical level—in these areas and others.
It would not be the first time, however. How well did that fair for his predecessors? What does the empirical evidence tell us for what to expect going forward? These questions, rather than hopeful visions of a moderating Islamic Republic, provide a better starting point for thinking about the regime’s future.
Don’t Expect Change
Such is the historical basis for arguing that Rouhani’s efforts to challenge the Supreme Leader won’t turn out substantially different than those of his predecessors. Khamenei has worked for decades to create institutions and forge alliances that effectively form a parallel, unelected government, which has more power than its (un-freely) elected counterpart. The recent arrest of Rouhani’s brother on the mere suspicion of vague and nebulous charges is but the latest indicator of this reality; in this case, the Khamenei-allied judiciary was the unelected faction that took aim at the President.
Neither Rouhani nor any other President will be able to challenge the Supreme Leader and “win” as long as velayat-e faqih is the core foundation of Iran’s government and the role of the guardian jurist is absolute. The President’s power is limited, even over executive matters, and he remains unable to change the regime’s decision-making process. This is one reason why any given presidential election, including the last one, is important but not transformational. The real transition will come when the elderly Khamenei dies and the succession process begins.
Even if Rouhani were able to implement his vision, however, Iran would not look much different than it does today. Many Western journalists and some analysts miss this point. So-called reformers like Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif do not want real change. Their goal is to “sustain the Islamic Republic’s authoritarian regime,” as Ray Takeyh has argued. The President shares the Supreme Leader’s expansionist foreign policy vision and fervent belief that the current theocratic system inside Iran must endure. Rouhani and his allies may be pragmatists who believe that economic reforms to attract foreign investment and avoid sanctions for terrorism and human rights violations are the best path forward, but such disagreements are a matter of tactics, not strategy.
A reformer would be someone like Abdolkarim Soroush, who has written that religion must be separated from politics and questioned the concept of velayat-e faqih. A reformer would be someone who does not violate citizens’ human rights, make militant statements against Israel, or support a clandestine nuclear program. Rouhani is not this person. Moreover, and most relevant to American interests, Rouhani and his allies do not differ from Khamenei on basic foreign policy and Tehran’s goal of achieving preeminence in the Middle East.
One key variable that could change the status quo is Iran’s population. A significant portion of the Iranian people wants the Islamic Republic to disappear, and many would like a democracy to emerge in its wake. But the regime has a monopoly on violence and is willing to use force if necessary to stay in power. As Robert D. Kaplan said in September, Iran is engaged in the Syrian conflict, helping President Bashar al-Assad kill hundreds of thousands of people in a bid to stay in power. Imagine what the Iranian regime would be willing to do to keep itself in power.
Moreover, many Iranians may see their government as undesirable but still preferable to the chaos that has enveloped other countries in the region whose leaders fell from power. Still, a popular pro-democracy rebellion, one like the Green Revolution of 2009, has the potential to bring change. The question is not if another wave of large-scale protests against the regime will occur but when.
The 2009 demonstrations ended up strengthening the regime after security forces violently put down the protests and the government regained some legitimacy. Will the next major uprising produce the same outcome? It remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Until then, do not expect change in Iran. One can work toward that goal, but to expect change without any real evidence for its likelihood lays the foundation for dangerous policies based on misguided notions of strengthening moderates in the regime. The reality is that the Supreme Leader and his allies will likely remain in a strong position going forward, at the expense of the President. Rouhani may be challenging the Supreme Leader, but all he should expect to find along that course is a road to ruin.
1Afshon Ostovar, Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 144.
2Farideh Farhi, “Cultural Policies in the Islamic Republic of Iran” (paper presented at a conference hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars entitled “Iran After 25 Years of Revolution: A Retrospective and a Look Ahead, Washington, DC, November 16-17, 2004).
3Farhi, “Cultural Policies in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
4Suzanne Maloney, Iran’s Political Economy Since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 286.
5Ostovar, Vanguard of the Imam, p. 162.