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Ayatollah Khamenei implements his grand strategy

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei File picture: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei File picture: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

Published Jun 27, 2021


Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is arguably a grand chess master on the geopolitical stage, and he has orchestrated the next phase in Iran’s political life with calculated precision. Since 1989, he has been the most powerful political authority in the Islamic Republic and is the longest-serving head of state in the Middle East.

Officially, Khamenei is the commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces, and can issue decrees and make final decisions on the main policies of the government as far as the economy, environment, foreign policy and national planning are concerned. Khamenei has direct and indirect control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, as well as the military and media. All candidates for the Assembly of Experts and the President of the Majlis (parliament) are vetted by the Guardian Council, whose members are selected directly or indirectly by the Supreme Leader.

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Ultimately, Khamenei is the guardian of Iran’s foreign policy, and while the face of the president and foreign minister may change through elections, they take their cue from the supreme leader on all matters of foreign and security policy.

In Iran, foreign policy is the product of consensus reached among key security and foreign policy institutions, and signed off on by the Supreme Leader, but the president still plays a major role in how the country's foreign policy plays out.

Hence the recent election of Ebrahim Raisi as president may have ushered in a more conservative leadership and catapulted hard-liners into top posts across the government, but decisions will remain subservient to the Ayatollah’s direction. Iranian elections have rarely brought about major changes in specific Iranian policies.

It is expected that Raisi’s conservative administration will take a hard line and nationalist tone in dealing with the US and European countries when it comes to the military or defence capability of the country. He is likely to strengthen alliances with China, Russia and Iran’s allies in the region.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s health is rumoured to have deteriorated last year, following a surgery in 2014 for prostate cancer. At the age of 82, Khamenei would obviously want to secure his legacy and the future trajectory of Iranian politics by strategically hand-picking his successor. Some experts contend that Khamenei may want the 60-year-old cleric and newly-elected President Raisi to succeed him as Supreme Leader, as the Ayatollah considers him a trusted disciple.

It was Khamenei who appointed him as the head of the country’s largest religious foundation, and later, the head of the judiciary. His election as the president with strong support from the Supreme Leader suggests that Khamenei is positioning and grooming Raisi to replace him in the future.

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The Supreme Leader also places a great deal of trust in his 51-year-old son, Sayyid Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei, who oversees several important security and intelligence departments. For decades, European experts have dubbed Mojtaba as a potential successor to Khamenei.

A conservative council of clerics close to Khamenei, which vets presidential candidates, disqualified other rivals to Raisi who could have posed a serious challenge prior to the elections. Prominent reformist candidates and allies of moderator President Hassan Rouhani were removed. Raisi enjoys support from the clerical hierarchy as well as from the security apparatus and the Revolutionary Guards.

Given what seemed like a predetermined outcome, electoral turnout was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic as millions stayed home as many perceived that the vote was already tipped in Raisi’s favour. Tehran province had a surprisingly low turnout of 34%, about half that of previous elections, and many polling stations were reported to be noticeably deserted. The result of the election was that Raisi took 62% of the 28.9 million votes.

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What is of strategic importance to the Supreme Leader going forward, and to the new president, is to revive the suffocated Iranian economy by ensuring that the US-imposed sanctions are lifted. This means returning to the existing nuclear deal, but Iran’s leadership will not accept any new conditions or extensions of the agreement. The US will also want to restore the nuclear agreement, although they want to alter the terms to make them more restrictive.

The US wants to limit Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, not just for years but for generations. The US is, however, all too well aware that as a result of former president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, over time, Iran abandoned every limitation on uranium enrichment and is now enriching to 60%, the highest level to date, but still short of weapons-grade 90%. The US will ultimately have to drop its new demands if it wants to return to the deal at all.

The Americans will have to consider the reality that Iranian hard-liners were against the nuclear deal from the beginning as they didn’t trust the West. Once Trump turned his back on the deal after years of tough negotiations, Iranian hard-liners were vindicated in their claims that America could not be trusted to uphold their end of the bargain.

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The strategy of the Supreme Leader may be to revive the nuclear deal before Raisi is inaugurated on August 8. This would allow the regime to blame the deal’s shortcomings on outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, while allowing Raisi to reap the economic benefits of sanctions relief.

The Supreme Leader has already indicated that he is in favour of the deal. American and European negotiators are in Vienna working on ways to restore the nuclear deal. In his first press conference since the elections, Raisi has made it clear, however, that he would not negotiate over Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its support for regional allies.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.

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