By Dr. Ali M. Pedram
January 17, 2018 Less than two weeks after the eruption of widespread protests in Iran, 19 minutes of one of the most closely kept secrets in the Islamic republic’s history leaked on January 8th, 2018. The shocking leak is a video clip of proceedings in May 1989 in which the pros and cons of appointing the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are being discussed behind closed doors at an urgent session of the Assembly of Experts.
But why now? Is the leak an intentional and timely act to undermine the authority of the leader? Is it being done by a segment of the establishment with an ulterior motive? Or has this been done by a rogue element with its own agenda?
Although it seems segments of the video footage of the proceedings was initially leaked by elements close Rafsanjani back in 2009, the emergence of the full footage comes at a time when Khamenei’s power and influence are at a critical ebb. The clips also offer valuable insights into the political motivations of Khamenei’s appointment. A Hojat-ol-Eslam according to the routine seminary criteria, not yet even an Ayatollah, his appointment suggested a tactical move to instal a leader who could be both predicted and controlled with little effort.
According to the original version of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, the Assembly of Experts, a council comprised of around 80 Islamic Jurists, or religious experts, has the power to appoint either a leader or a three-member council of leaders.
The proceedings took place in Tehran, hours after the death of Iran’s former supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, on 4th of June 1989. The then Article 109 of the constitution stipulated that one of the criteria for appointing a leader is his established religious authority as a “source of emulation” (marja’ taqlid).
This requirement was, however, modified in the amendment of the constitution which was put forward for a referendum around three months after this appointment. The change removed the requirement for the prospective supreme leader to have such religious authority.
In the clip, we see an unprecedented confession by Ayatollah Khamenei, arguing against his eligibility for the position of supreme leader. In his comments, he says: “It is a great sadness that in an Islamic society [such as Iran], someone like me should even be considered for this position, as I am not qualified for it, for two reasons. Firstly, I do not deem myself fit for this position. Secondly, there is a technical problem if I become the supreme leader, and that is the practical lack of my authority in front of various members of this assembly. We have seen throughout the proceedings [more senior members than myself] speaking against my eligibility, and this demonstrates [my point] in this regard”.
After Khamenei’s comments, the clip shows the then chairman of the assembly, the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, swiftly trying to wrap up the proceedings by calling for a vote to appoint Khamenei on a “temporary basis” as the supreme leader. He also adds a condition to his call for a vote, by suggesting that a vote should be followed by an upcoming referendum. If the referendum was successful, the accession would be permanently approved and would remain in place.
This revelation raises serious questions about the legality of the designation of Ayatollah Khamenei as supreme leader. It also shows the indispensable role of Hashemi Rafsanjani in promptly concluding the debate and calling for the supporters of the proposal for Khamenei’s appointment to do nothing more than stand up and show their support. Rafsanjani then declares the results as being over the two-thirds majority needed to elect a leader. A new supreme leader, albeit a temporary one, is elected. Twenty-nine years on, Khamenei remains the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Interestingly, one day before the leak, Rafsanjani’s brother, Mohammad Hashemi, said in an interview that Rafsanjani’s death dossier had been returned to the Supreme Council for National Security exactly one year after his sudden death while he was swimming in an exclusive and guarded pool in north Tehran. Less than a month ago, Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani’s outspoken daughter, also revealed that the post-mortem report on her father indicated the presence of a radioactive substance, 10 times higher than normal levels, inside Rafsanjani’s body.
Rafsanjani, who was essential to the appointment of Khamenei three decades ago, started to stray from the official line after the surprise 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the favorite ‘little-known’ candidate. The rift then gained momentum in the aftermath of the 2009 disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad, and following Rafsanjani’s lukewarm support for the infamous reformist camp led by Sayed Mohammad Khatami and Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Rafsanjani showed his disquiet over the turn of events, in contrast with Ayatollah Khamenei’s expressed wishes. Both Khamenei and Rafsanjani managed to keep their animosity to a minimum for the “sake of the establishment,” but in reality, this peacekeeping exercise was more about preserving the regime’s longevity. It is only now, after the death of Rafsanjani- a king-maker who kept the chairmanship of the Expediency Council until his demise – that the establishment’s stronghold seems to be evaporating.
In addition, factional infighting, soaring corruption and an exacerbation of poverty have triggered an indigenous protest against the status quo. Even the newly and overwhelmingly re-elected president Hassan Rouhani has lost touch with the public whose living standards are crashing on account of an economy that is crippled with high inflation and stagnant growth.
The Islamic Republic is now at a critical crossroads. On the one hand, it is facing an internal revolt, and on the other hand, a very hawkish US administration determined to hit Iran’s regional leverage, supported by most Arab states and Israel.
Two weeks after country-wide protests, Trump’s categorical support for the anti-establishment protests in Iran and his promises to support Iran’s dissent have brought back the previously shelved policy of regime change in Iran. There is no doubt that the deteriorating relationship between Iran and the US has sunk further since Trump’s presidency. Indeed his determination to accelerate hostilities towards the Islamic Republic will not change.
US withdrawal from the nuclear deal may undo Rouhani’s only achievement and open the way for his government’s collapse, given the worsening economic hardships endured by the population, and the socio-political crackdown imposed by the establishment. However, it seems that the US will consider imposing further sanctions against crucial entities which function directly under the Supreme Leader’s order. A move such as this could, for a while at least, provide further space for Rouhani to claim that he is the last and only chance for the establishment’s survival, a chance he seems to be willing to take, but that is far from guaranteed to succeed.