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Iran's crisis and Ali Khamenei

Ali Reza
29 June 2009

Would it possible to legally remove Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from his selected position as supreme leader of Iran? Technically, yes - though in practice this is much harder to achieve.

Ali Reza Eshraghi is a former newspaper editor in Iran. He is now a visiting scholar of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley

Even after Khamenei outlined his uncompromising stance on the presidential elections at Friday prayers in Tehran on 19 June 2009 - namely that there was no fraud and that the protests must end - the two reformist candidates (Mir-Hossein Moussaviand Mehdi Karroubi) defiantly disobeyed him. Such a move is unheard of in the twenty years the supreme leader has been in position (since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini - the founder of Iran's current regime and its first supreme leader - in 1989); for the rahbar has the final verdict on all issues, and no one can or should challenge his final say - to the point that some extremists even argue that "if the supreme leader says that yogurt is black then it is black."

True, there have been some slogans heard against the supreme leader in the street demonstrations; but the losing candidates themselves have shied away from criticising or even addressing him directly, fearing that this would be equated to deconstructing the entire regime.

The only legal way to remove Ayatollah Khamenei from power is through the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics that is in charge of electing, supervising, and dismissing the supreme leader. The two key conditions for being elected to such a position is being just and prudent: It can be argued that he should be automatically disqualified from his position, as he is no longer just and prudent. The catch-22 in this situation is that the members of the Assembly of Experts are selected from clerics loyal and obedient to the supreme leader.

Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour, "Iran's stolen election, and what comes next" (18 June 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Iran's coming storm" (22 June 2009)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Iran" (23 June 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

Reza Molavi & Jennifer Thompson, Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long (25 June 2009)

Iran's former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the previous presidential election in 2005, and one of Mousavi's major supporters is the chairman of the assembly. The Iran analyst Reza Aslan has speculated that Rafsanjani is very likely to call on the members of the assembly for an urgent meeting to "talk about Khamenei". Now, many Iranian analysts and ordinary people are wondering why Rafsanjani is silent these days, especially in lieu of the many attacks Ahmadinejad made on his family during the debates. This may be in part due to the fact that Rafsanjani is not very influential in the assembly, and in recent internal elections for the chairman only received fifty-one of the eighty-six votes.

The reasons of state

The biggest issue is not the process of dismissing the supreme leader, but selecting his replacement. Amidst the intense and serious struggle among the diversified fractions within the system, there is no general acceptance and legitimacy for another candidate. The absence of a supreme leader would be a threat to the integrity of the Islamic Republic and pose as a cause for collapse - which is perhaps why Rafsanjani has been silent during the protests. Sadegh Zibakalam, a close analyst of Rafsanjani says: "his main apprehension is keeping the system safe." The Islamic Republic newspaper, which is known as Rafsanjani's bulletin, was strongly supporting Moussavi in the elections but changed its tone after Ayatollah Khamenei's speech: "All people, groups and strands have to respect the Supreme Leader for the sake of high expedients of the regime."

This is perhaps why a day after the Friday prayers in Tehran on 19 June, the Assembly of Experts demanded that people obey Ayatollah Khamenei's orders. Even a moderate member of the assembly, Ayatollah Hashemzadeh Harisi - who is close to reformists - stated that "following the Supreme Leader's commands is a religious obligation."

In this light it seems that there are two explanations for the absence of a direct challenge to the supreme leader:

* Most of the current ruling Shi'a clerics in Iran are following a quote from Imam Ali, the first holy successor to the Prophet Mohammed: "A tyrant is better than trouble." They figure it is better to maintain the status quo with an unjust ruler than create chaos in their own system by challenging him

* "Preservation of an Islamic Republic is more essential than any religious duty." This phrase was  coined by Ayatollah Khomeini; it is now repeatedly quoted by his successors to the dissatisfied candidates, as a way of asking them to end their protest for the sake of the entire regime. This phrase prescribes that it is legitimate to stop Islamic duties such as praying daily, being truthful and honest and even accepting fraud - if it is in the best interest of the regime.

Perhaps fear of toppling the regime altogether explains why Hashemi Rafsanjani has remained silent; why Mohammad Khatami, the reformist ex-president, has been very conservative in supporting the protesters loudly and clearly; and why Mohsen Rezaei, the third candidate in the four-way presidential contest, retracted his complaints against election fraud. This is one race none of them appears prepared to win.


Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith" (2 June 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

Omid Memarian, "Iran on the move" (11 June 2009)

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