Continuing unrest following allegations of fraud in Iran's presidential election has created a leadership crisis for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The protests and the fissures within the Iranian clerical establishment call into question how Khamenei will restore order and how far he is willing to go to do so. Karim Sadjadpour argues that "Ayatollah Khamenei may indeed reach a point where he feels that he will need to sacrifice President Ahmadinejad to retain his own position as Supreme Leader. Previously sacred red lines are being crossed today in Iran, and one of them is challenging Ayatollah Khamenei's position as Supreme Leader. This was an issue, which no matter how heated things got in the past, that was a red line issue that very few people challenged."
The spasms of unrest, larger than any since the 1979 revolution, that have spread through Iran since the election show no signs of easing. At least seven deaths were reported on Monday, June 15, when hundreds of thousands protested in Tehran, and massive rallies were planned to commemorate the dead. Karim Sadjadpour explains to the Economist that Ayatollah Khamenei, facing a popular uprising, unprecedented political pressure from prominent clerics, and potential fissures in the Revolutionary Guards, may lead a massive and bloody crackdown to preserve his hold on power.
Q: What makes these protests different from protests in previous years in Iran?
SADJADPOUR: Something historic is truly afoot today in Iran. The scale of these protests is truly unprecedented. But it’s not only the people against the regime as in years and protests past. Today you have unprecedented fissures amongst the revolutionary elite themselves. So the regime has never faced this kind of mass opposition before that encompasses such a wide swath of Iranian society—we’re not just talking intellectuals and elites of Northern Tehran; on the contrary, we’re talking about working class, laborers, certainly educated classes, lower income classes. And not only in Tehran—these protests have really mushroomed throughout the country.
Q: You talk about this spreading far beyond the liberal elite that I think people have often charged with being the only real opposition in Iran. People have often criticized the West’s reporting and interpretation of Iranian politics as being entirely out of North Tehran and lacking a broader understanding. Why is it that such a broad coalition of people seem to have been drawn into this? Is it just as a reaction to Ahmadinejad’s policies over the last four years, or are there other reasons?
SADJADPOUR: I think discontent has been brewing in Iran for at least a few decades, actually, since the revolution. There’s tremendous political discontent, tremendous social discontent and economic malaise. These things have been brewing for a long time. And anyone who travels to Iran notices that this discontent transcends geography, it transcends age, it transcends religiosity. It’s very rare to talk to an Iranian, even the most pious of Iranians, and ask them about the government’s performance, it’s rare for them to say, “yes, the government is doing a good job, I’m very satisfied with my quality of life.” Everyone recognizes that Iran is vastly unfulfilling its enormous potential.
What’s interesting about today, about these protests, is that despite the fact that the regime has openly announced that their shock troops are authorized to use force, to fire on people, you still continue to see crowds in the hundreds of thousands, who are risking their lives to have a political voice. The sense of discontent, the sense of injustice, the sense of outrage, is truly palpable. I think this election was simply the last straw for many people. People had tried to change the system via the ballot box—they believed they had an overwhelming mandate to do so, they had a majority of the votes, and yet the votes were not taken seriously—it’s really compelled people to go out in the streets in a way which we have not seen since the 1979 revolution.
Q: You mentioned the Supreme Leader—one of the other unusual, even extraordinary, aspects of the current protests is that he’s coming under criticism in a way that he hasn’t before. His position isn’t under threat, I think, at the moment, but he’s certainly facing problems. Do think there may come a point at which he feels he has to sacrifice Mr. Ahmadinejad to save his own position?
SADJADPOUR: Ayatollah Khamenei may indeed reach a point where he feels that he will need to sacrifice Ahmadinejad to retain his own position as Supreme Leader. Previously sacred redlines are being crossed today in Iran and one of them is challenging Ayatollah Khamenei’s position as Supreme Leader. This was an issue which, no matter how heated things became in the past, that was a redline issue which very few people challenged. Now you have hundreds of thousands of people in the streets chanting “Death to the Dictator.” You have Hashemi Rafsanjani, a guy who essentially made Ayatollah Khamenei Supreme Leader in 1989, who was the kingmaker—Rafsanjani is going to Qom to try to assemble a coalition of Grand Ayatollahs against Khamenei.
Khamenei is facing pressure at a popular level, but also a political level from his contemporaries. Historically, if you look at his tenure as leader, his twenty years as leader, his world view is very clear, and that is that you never compromise under pressure, when you’re under siege, because that’s not going to allay the pressure, that’s going to project weakness and invite even more pressure. But he has to be very delicate in the way he calculates because if he chooses to respond with force—which they have so far—it’s not dissuading people from going out into the streets. In fact, by killing people I think they’re causing these protests to mushroom, in a way. It’s creating an even greater sense of outrage. I think Khamenei is in a very lonely position today, because he thinks if he compromises too much it might bring about his demise, but if he doesn’t compromise enough it could also bring about his demise.
Q: Now Khamenei is obviously the most powerful cleric in Iran, but there are many other members of the clergy who are very influential, and there has been tension between Ahmadinejad and other members of the clergy in the past. What’s been their role in the crisis so far?
SADJADPOUR: It’s interesting if you look at Iranian politics and trends—when the Revolution first happened you saw the rise of the clergy as an entity, as a political class, but over the last ten years what you’ve seen is the gradual rise of the institution of the Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guards are beginning to, one could argue, or have already eclipsed the clergy in terms of their political and their economic clout. Neither of these institutions, neither the clergy nor the Revolutionary Guards, are monolithic. You have hard-line Revolutionary Guardsmen siding with Ahmadinejad but you also have more moderate Revolutionary Guardsmen like Mohsen Rezaii who oppose Ahmadinejad. I think the clergy see the rise of Ahmadinejad as somewhat of a threat to their interests because they’ve seen over the last four years, as Ahmadinejad has been in office, that his power base has been much more the Revolutionary Guards, he’s indulged the Revolutionary Guards far more than he has the clergy
Q: One of Ahmadinejad’s challengers, Mohsen Rezaii, is a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, and presumably still enjoys some support among them. What role could he have as the crisis continues?
SADJADPOUR: Well, Rezaii was a longtime commander of the Revolutionary Guards and it’s said that he still enjoys popularity; he still has pockets of support within the Revolutionary Guards. And their worldview is certainly not monolithic—whereas the senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards are directly appointed by Khamenei and they’re going to remain loyal to him, a lot of the rank-and-file are far less ideological and their support for Ahmadinejad shouldn’t be taken for granted. When push comes to shove it’s not exactly clear that the Revolutionary Guards will necessarily side with the regime; if they’re ordered to use overwhelming force you might start to see fissures within the Revolutionary Guards themselves.
Q: There are rumors today that the bazaaris, the powerful merchant class in Iran, have gone on strike. Given what an important issue the economy has been under Ahmadinejad and in the election particularly, what are the implications if that goes ahead?
SADJADPOUR: The bazaar played a seminal role in the 1979 revolution. It was long believed that the institution of the bazaar and the institution of the clergy worked hand-in-hand. What’s happened over time in Iran, though, is that the institution of the bazaar, the bazaaris, have really suffered economically as a result of the economic policies of the Islamic Republic. And I think the bazaaris recognize this; they recognize that the Islamic Republic and in particular Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have not been good for their interests. Instead of coveting foreign investment, Ahmadinejad has been repelling foreign investment. I think their economic interests are quite clear here—they want to see a more open economy, a more vibrant economy, and Ahmadinejad profoundly mismanaged the economy. If they do decide to go on strike it could play a huge role in the calculations of Ayatollah Khamenei, because he may be having flashbacks to 1979 and 1978 and recognizing that if he’s lost the bazaar and he’s lost many of his own clerical peers and there’s potential fissures within Revolutionary Guards, then he may need to reassess the situation before this entire ship sinks.
Q: In the past, American governments have been criticized for supporting, vocally, protesters in Iran. People have argued that this has weakened the reformers’ cause within the country. Barack Obama has been very cautious in his response to the current crisis. Do you think that is the right response?
SADJADPOUR: I think the message from Washington has been properly calibrated, and if you look at Iranian history there are great suspicions about foreign influence in Iran. Particularly in the last few decades, there’s been obsession about American interests and America’s desire to intervene in Iranian internal affairs. So I would argue that, in the past three decades especially, when the U.S. has tried to help more progressive forces in Iran by vocally expressing support for them we’ve probably hurt them more than we’ve helped them. So I think the message from the White House has been well-calibrated.
At the same time, I read a statement from President Obama yesterday expressing doubt as to whether a Mousavi presidency would really be that much better for Iran, and I think this was a rare faux pas for Obama.
Q: Is this going to get worse before it gets better?
SADJADPOUR: One important distinction you have between the current regime and the Shah’s regime was that many elite in the Shah’s regime, including the Shah himself, were educated abroad, they’d spent their formative years in Europe and the United States, and when the going got really tough and things got bad, many of them knew that they had lives elsewhere they could live, whether in Europe or the United States. With this current regime, Ayatollah Khamenei and others, they recognize that Iran is all they have. They grew up in Iran, they were educated, many of them, in the seminaries in Qom and elsewhere. So there are not that many options out there for them.
So I think that they—it’s been speculated for a long time, people have always said that these guys will fight to the death. And, again, if you try to get inside Khamenei’s head, the lesson he learned from 1979 is that by trying to pacify the revolutionaries the Shah in fact emboldened them because they sensed weakness. This time around Khamenei doesn’t want to, he wants to project a different persona than the Shah. Rather than accede to the demands of the people in the streets, he fears that if he compromises he’s going to project weakness and that will lead to his downfall. So I do fear a massive clampdown by the regime. A potential bloodbath is unfortunately within the realm of possibilities.
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.
Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!
You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.