Khamenei focused his speech on two main topics, covering both Iran’s economic crisis and the upcoming presidential elections in May. However, his words on the economy can be evaluated as a prelude to the disputes that will most definitely engulf Iranian politics. The comments Khamenei made on the economy were mainly focused on the failures and embarrassments brought about by the cabinet of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, including increasing unemployment and doubt over statistics published by the government.
Unlike Western democracies, there are no real “political parties” in Iran. Despite all the brouhaha in the media about “moderates” or “reformists” facing off against “hardliners,” they are all part of one system loyal to one leader, and are only considered members of different factions within this one system. Their only difference hovers over how to maintain their dictatorial regime in power.
Khamenei very specifically said the people should not elect a “tired” president and went as far as saying that the president must not be involved in any case of economic corruption.When discussing the elections, Khamenei very vividly referred to Rouhani’s cabinet as an inactive, low energy and a “non-revolutionary” entity. These very same terms were used the day before by various Friday prayer imams and representatives of his faction in the parliament.
Rouhani wasted no time in responding, taking advantage of a speech in the city of Sanandaj, in western Iran, on March 25. In response to Khamenei demanding that the government must present a report card of its accomplishments, Rouhani targeted the judiciary – known to be extremely loyal to Khamenei’s viewpoints – and called for this powerful institution to present its own report.
The question now is what the purpose of Khamenei’s remarks might have been. Does he truly intend to eliminate or disqualify Rouhani from the polls in any way?
Of course, Khamenei would prefer Rouhani to not be his regime’s next president. However, it appears he can no longer disqualify Rouhani through the ultraconservative Guardian Council, a 12-man body selected directly and indirectly by Khamenei, that is in charge of vetting all candidates for all so-called elections in Iran.
Although various members of Khamenei’s faction may seek such a fate for Rouhani, it appears that Khamenei himself knows the consequences of this outcome. A development of this type would significantly tear open the rifts inside the Iranian regime and provide adequate circumstances for Iranian society to explode in uprisings and protests similar to those of 2009.
To this end, Khamenei will go the distance to discredit and destroy Rouhani’s image and as a result decrease his popularity at the polls in a second and engineered round of elections. This would be the easiest of all scenarios for Khamenei, resulting in the elimination of Rouhani “by the books.”
And if forced to accept Rouhani for another term, the least Khamenei expects is to have a completely weakened Rouhani who won’t raise any demands and follows his orders. Khamenei especially needs such conditions after he lost one of his regime’s main pillars, former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Despite their differences, Khamenei knows that the road ahead is far more difficult without him. To this end, he senses a need to continue his attacks against Rouhani to gain a full and complete control over all aspects of his regime.
The irony, however, lies in the fact that Khamenei faces many obstacles in his path to this objective.
First, the probability of a social outburst transforming into nationwide uprisings would be no less than a nightmare for him. If such a threat did not exist, rest assured Khamenei would have disqualified Rouhani through the Guardian Council and rid himself of this problem.
Second, Khamenei also has major reservations about the huge rifts existing within his own faction, vivid through the fact that his camp has not been able to select and support a single candidate for the elections. If Khamenei is unable to convince the hardliners to rally behind one candidate, he can assume the election lost beforehand.
Third, all said and done, who is the one figure Khamenei can select to have his camp rally behind? Does such a person even exist in Iran today who can bring an end to the long-lasting divisions among the so-called hardliners?
This all comes down to the major challenge before the entire Iranian regime: Can these sham elections be held without the population rising up, similar to 2009, in demand of fundamental change? We’ll find out soon enough.
Originally posted in The Diplomat