A type of coup in Tehran?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is erasing any democratic rights as he consolidates power.  He is preparing Iran for a siege from enemies on every border and even some inside the walls.

At seventy-eight years of age and with powerful enemies in high places, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has no political options left.  There has been a systematic effort by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to destroy him; and he has succeeded. The Supreme Leader has made reference to the time when he attended the final cabinet meeting of Rafsanjani’s presidency that extended from 1989 to 1997.  He remarked that at the meeting he rarely had his wishes followed.  For the Supreme Leader to have ruled in the shadow of a subordinate with the nickname of the “Shark” must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

The nickname was a testimony to Rafsanjani’s ruthlessness and cunning cultivated in order to intimidate his opposition.  The fact that the image matched the reality made him all the more threatening. He is said to have been a key player in the killing of thousands of opponents of the Islamic Revolution in its early days.  Political prisoners were given the choice of facing immediate hanging or they could prove their dedication to the regime by clearing minefields on the Iraqi front.

In spite of Rafsanjani’s role in the brutal enforcement of the regime’s power, he also sought the image of the reformer who favoured free elections and other civil rights. But he had lost much of his bite by the time of the parliamentary election in 2000.  He was no longer a central figure in the reformist movement and placed so far down the list of candidates for the speaker of the Majlis that he was too offended to take up his seat. Instead, he set his target on the presidency in the election of 2005.  The Supreme leader cast his vote by saying that he had known Rafsanjani for fifty years, prayed for him daily, but agreed more with his opponent, the little known mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They agreed that the reforms introduced by the two previous presidents should be reversed. 

It didn’t take long, though, before Ahmadinejad asserted his authority and opposed the Supreme Leader as had happened during the administrations of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his successor Mohammad Khatami.  In spite of the differences that had surfaced, Khamenei had to support him in the 2009 presidential election.  Mir Hossein Mousavi was leading a reformist movement that would have challenged Khamenei’s consolidation of power in his office and in the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and in the clergy.  Their growing domination of the economy was enriching them and binding them to the Great Leader; and all of it was threatened by Mousavi and his broad spectrum of supporters.

The screening of candidates for the election and the rigging of the votes sent protestors into the streets to demand a new election.  Rafsanjani and members of his family joined the Green Movement that had the potential of becoming a revolution.

The ruthless suppression of the protests was matched by a strategy of breaking one of its prominent icons.  Rafsanjani’s grandson Lahouti was arrested for his participation in demonstrations; his daughter Faezeh was convicted in January of 2012 for spreading anti-government propaganda; his son Mehdi fled to the UK for three years of self-imposed exile until his recent return to face arrest and possible imprisonment; another son, Mohsen, was removed from his position as manager of the Tehran Metro project that he had held for thirteen years; Rafsanjani, himself, lost his position on the Assembly of Experts that oversees the office of the Supreme Leader; and the chairman of the Islamic Azat University, the source of the family’s wealth was replaced by a government appointee in what could be the first step in the confiscation of the business.  Throughout all of this, the once powerful Rafsanjani did nothing.  

What is Khamenei’s objective?  A series of events that began in October of 2011 may be showing the direction.  That was when he suggested that the office of the president should be abolished.  A committee was formed in the Majlis last July to consider the proposal.

The other event that should be noted is the strike at the beginning of October in the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. The bazaaris were calling for the removal of Ahmadinejad who was blamed for the economic crisis.  It was the same protest slogans heard just before the Shah was driven from Iran.  Some of the Bazaaris said that they were instructed to protest against Ahmadinejad.

There will be little problem removing him.  Many members of the Majlis are eager to pull down the flamboyant arrogant president and are only awaiting the word from the Supreme Leader.

That word does not seem to be far off, with the grip tightening over society.  The government is blocking internet usage; women are being ordered to follow Islamic dress even outside of Iran; and the Supreme Leader has said that the bickering among the officials will be treated as treason.  With the economy suffering from years of mismanagement and the sanctions taking effect, with the war in Syria turning against Al-Assad, with Sunni-Shia clashes worsening in Iraq, and with the constant threats from the United States and Israel, there is no room for conflict inside the government.  The Supreme Leader sees Iran under siege and the IRG is pressing to respond by assuming a more offensive posture.  With the country facing an economic crisis at the beginning of October, leaders of the IRG were visiting, Iraq where the conflict between the Sunni and the Shia is heating into a near civil war.

Khamenei is not prepared to risk the destabilizing effect of another presidential election. It would be better to abolish the office. That means to impeach Ahmadinejad and to appoint a broken Rafsanjani to the presidency that he created.  Khamenei would have him abolish the office and restore a prime ministerial system which is much easier to control.

Not only would this give the Supreme Leader the satisfaction of breaking a rival of thirty years and standing alone in the center of the stage, it would leave a united militarized theocracy that would be better equipped to confront the enemies outside and inside.  No longer would the Supreme Leader be forced to assert his authority over a vocal opposition in order to exercise his power.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would become a near god king, the IRG his personal Praetorian Guard, and the nation a fortress.

About the author

Felix Imonti is the retired director of a private equity firm living in Japan. He has published a history book, Violent Justice, and articles in the field of international politics and economics.