x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Supreme leadership in question in Iran

A rift is widening inside Iran's political establishment between those who see the will of the people as the foundation of state power and those who believe in the Supreme Leader's unassailable authority. In an historic address during Friday prayers, former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, drew on his own authority as a revolutionary leader, while also citing declarations from the leader of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, in order to assert the supremacy of the popular will.

A rift is widening inside Iran's political establishment between those who see the will of the people as the foundation of state power and those who believe in the Supreme Leader's unassailable authority. In an historic address during Friday prayers in Tehran, the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani drew on his own authority as a revolutionary leader, while also citing declarations from the leader of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, in order to assert the supremacy of the popular will. The Wall Street Journal reported: "Iran's supreme leader struck back Monday at a barrage of increasingly assertive challenges from reform-minded leaders, warning them to tone down complaints about the contested June 12 election and its aftermath. "The speech came after two former Iranian presidents appeared to directly confront Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the election. Former President Mohammad Khatami, a so-called reformist who led Iran for two terms before Mr Ahmadinejad's first election victory in 2005, called over the weekend for a referendum on his reelection last month. "The call was the latest high-profile rebuke to Mr Khamenei, who has attempted to close debate on the subject with his endorsement of the election results weeks ago. Late last week, another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in the elevated setting of Friday prayers at Tehran University, bluntly criticised the government over its handling of post-election protests." The New York Times said: "Iran's reformist former president Mohammad Khatami called Sunday for a referendum on the legitimacy of the government in the wake of last month's disputed presidential election, Iranian Web sites reported. "Mr Khatami's comments amounted to a bold challenge to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has dismissed the opposition's claims that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory on June 12 was rigged, and has ordered protesters to accept it. "It is unlikely that Iran's hardline leaders will accept the referendum proposal. But the fact that Mr Khatami proposed it at all suggests a renewed confidence within the opposition movement." In an analysis on the unprecedented challenge Iran's supreme leader now faces, Elaine Sciolino wrote: "During his decades in Iranian politics, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been praised as a pragmatist, criticised as spineless, accused of corruption and dismissed as a has-been. "Now, in assailing the government's handling of last month's disputed presidential election, Mr Rafsanjani, a 75-year-old cleric and former president, has cast himself in a new light: as a player with the authority to interpret the ideals of Iran's 30-year-old Islamic republic. "Using his perch as a designated prayer leader on Friday to deliver the speech of a lifetime, Mr Rafsanjani abandoned his customary caution to demand that the government release those arrested in recent weeks, ease restrictions on the media and eradicate the 'doubt' the Iranian people have about the election result. And he implicitly challenged the authority of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to make decisions without seeking consensus. "Behind the words was the assertion that for the Islamic republic to survive, it must restore its legitimacy, reaffirm its republican institutions and find a formula for governing." The Middle East historian, Juan Cole, wrote: "The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorises political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted. "The hardliners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader and ultimately all important decisions are made by him. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Misbah-Yazdi is an important exponent of this authoritarian view of the Islamic Republic. The Leader in this view is a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hardliners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hardline point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen." Massoumeh Torfeh believes: "The crack that has appeared at the centre of the political structure of the Islamic republic is serious and can neither be sealed or concealed." Writing in The Guardian, Ms Torfeh, an Iranian academic from London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said: "There was no hint of reconciliation, or any mediation 'message' for Iran's supreme leader in the sermon delivered by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani last Friday. For a mild-mannered political player, Rafsanjani looked angry and confrontational. As the second most powerful man in the political structure of the Islamic Republic, he challenged the supremacy of the supreme leader. "More than that, by associating himself with founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, he undermined the position of Khamenei. So much so that commentators in pro-government press in Iran have complained. Mojtaba Shakeri, of the ultraconservative Devotees of Islamic Revolution, said Rafsanjani 'should at least have made some respectful reference to the supreme leader. I did not hear one word about him.' "Rafsanjani's entire speech sounded as if he was speaking from a position of strength. He demanded debate and discussion about the elections, thereby rejecting the supreme leader's approval of the results. He questioned how Iran could have got into this deep crisis and why officials were not listening to people. He stressed it had caused serious tension and distrust among the population and this 'had to be put right'." Roger Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times who recently returned to the United States from Tehran wrote: "Iran is not some banana republic. The events since the night of June 12 have been a shameful interlude. Iranians have not digested this grotesquery. "No, Iran is not a banana republic. It's a sophisticated nation of 75 million people. It pretends to a significant role in the affairs of the world. It's a land of poets who knew how to marry the sacred and the sensuous and always laughed at the idea of a truth so absolute it would not accommodate contradiction. "It's an Islamic Republic and, as Rafsanjani said, 'If the Islamic and Republican sides of the revolution are not preserved, it means that we have forgotten the principles of the revolution.' "Respecting that duality ? the clerical and the republican ? means that the price Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has to pay for his lifelong authority is the quadrennial holding of presidential elections that cannot remove him from office but must inform his actions. "Because Khamenei trampled on this principle, ignoring the will of the people, he created the 'crisis' of which Rafsanjani spoke. "It will not abate quickly. Iranians believe the puppeteer must pay a price for such clumsy theatre. Within the revolutionary establishment and within society, fissures have become chasms."

pwoodward@thenational.ae