Rouhani and Iran’s Balance of Power

By Connor Sheehy

On May 19th, the people of Iran went to the polls to choose their next president. The voters emphatically returned incumbent President Hassan Rouhani to office, giving him nearly 60% of the vote in a field of four candidates. This is despite Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s clear preference for Ebrahim Raisi, Rouhani’s main opponent and a hardline cleric whose ideology was more in line with the Supreme Leader’s establishment.

The reelection Rouhani represents two developments in the political landscape of Iran: Firstly, that Rouhani would be elected with an increased mandate based on his promises to continue increasing ties with the West and serving as a moderate statesman, and secondly, that the hardline establishment’s grip on the country’s political and cultural opinion would continue to slip for the foreseeable future.

The idea that led to the power of the Supreme Leader is derived from an Islamic concept called velayat-e faqih, which translates to the guardian of the jurist. In Shiite Islam, twelve imams descended from Mohammed, thereby inheriting his authority and power as a political and religious leader. During the 9th century, the twelfth iman went into hiding, and it is believed that he will eventually return as a messiah.

The leader of the Iranian Revolution and first Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini argued that the missing imam’s place and authority could be taken by a cleric, making the Supreme Leader both a religious and political figurehead. Conceptually, the Supreme Leader is a king of divine right, an unelected leader who attains his power and authority from God, functioning as both the most powerful politician and religious authority in the nation.

As the Supreme Leader, a position he has held since 1989, the constitution gives Ayatollah Khamenei the final say over all political matters, and allows him to exert direct or indirect control over every branch of the government and the media, superseding even the elected president. Khamenei holds constitutional authority over the day-to-day functions of the federal judiciary, the state media, and is Commander-in-chief of both the regular army and the Revolutionary guards, who act as a police force to uphold the Islamic ideas of the state; Khamenei alone holds the power to appoint and dismiss members of the judiciary, the military, and the civil government.

Furthermore, Khamenei can easily overrule Parliament and the Presidency; he can directly fire or rehire members of the President’s Cabinet, and Khamenei has used his influence in the past to stifle past presidents who he felt were superseding their power, be they reform minded in Mohammad Khatami, or hardline in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He holds final authority over all domestic and foreign policy decisions made by Parliament, such as when he ordered a halt to a parliamentary inquiry into President Ahmadinejad’s handling of the Iranian economy in 2012. He also wields great power over religious matters, such as in 2002 when he ruled that human stem cell research was permissible under Islam, and when he issued a fatwa in 1996 that music education corrupts the mind of children, causing the public education of music to children younger than 16 to be banned.

Theoretically, there is a check on the power of the Ayatollah: the ironically named Assembly of Experts. This body holds the constitutional power to appoint and supervise the Supreme Leader, but candidates seeking to serve on the Assembly of Experts are ultimately approved by the Guardian Council, whose members are chosen by the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council also approves all candidates for the presidency and Parliament, giving the Ayatollah another means of control over the governmental apparatus of Iran.

 However, Khamenei has found both a political and ideological foil in President Rouhani, a reformer elected in 2013 based on his moderate pragmatism and his desire to open the country up to the West. Khamenei perceives Rouhani as a threat to both the constitutional power the Ayatollah holds in the Iranian government and to his legacy of religious and political conservatism and open disdain for the West.

The dynamic between Khamenei and Rouhani is far more confrontational than that of Khamenei and President Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who were closely aligned in ideology, and Rouhani’s ideological differences were made clear to the world when Rouhani helped Iran negotiate a deal with China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the E.U., and America that would remove economic sanctions from Iran if Iran would agree to dispose of the enriched uranium that could be used for a nuclear warhead and only enrich uranium up to a level where uranium could be usable for medical and electrical purposes.

Unsurprisingly, the deal was met with both skepticism and derision by the Supreme Leader and Iran’s hardline establishment. A deal with the United States over any matter would be frowned upon, since blatant disdain for America is central to the foreign policy of the hardline politicians in Iran, but also because the Ayatollah and his like-minded associates believe that above all, the United States is both a cultural and military threat to Iran. Furthermore, as a perverse and evil Western power, the United States cannot be trusted to abide by the deal.

The deal eventually won tepid support from Khamenei, but he despised the short and long term implications for the country in trusting the United States, as well as the potential of decreased tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which would be an affront to Khamenei’s ideology. Additionally, the Ayatollah may fear the loss of hard power that surrendering a nuclear warhead would cause: without a nuclear warhead, Iran would have no means of coercion of its neighboring enemy states like Saudi Arabia, nor could it deter America from striking the country militarily.

For Rouhani, the deal allows relief from sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy in recent years, as well as isolated and ostracized the country diplomatically. The harsh sanctions passed by the United Nations in 2006 as well as other sanctions imposed by the United States greatly reduced the demand for Iranian oil and made it difficult for the country to sell its oil or attract investment by foreign companies out of fear of losing access to larger Western markets.

The U.S. government estimated that the Iranian government lost the equivalent of 120 billion dollars from 2008 to 2013, and the economy has continued to contract, with the value of the Iranian rial decreasing precipitously. Iran also had billions of dollars in foreign oil revenues locked up in countries that buy its oil, but are unable to pay the Iranians due to sanctions that make it extremely complicated or impossible for funds to get to Iranian banks. These reserves can then only be used to cover trade deficits, and cannot go directly to the government in the form of revenue.

The repeal of the sanctions via the agreement would unfreeze the equivalent of 29 billion dollars, remove sanctions on the export of Iranian oil, allow Iran to resume global trade and use the global banking system, and allow foreign investment in Iran’s oil and gas industry, as well as the other sectors of its economy. Additionally, the agreement opened up the potential for a renewed diplomatic relationship with the rest of the world should Iran (and America) abide by the deal, which could allow Iran to be less diplomatically and politically ostracized with the West.

Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei will continue to clash due to Rouhani’s intention to open Iran up to the world politically and economically through the nuclear deal. And this deal may very well wholly alter the balance of power between the Ayatollah and the Iranian president if it leads to foreign direct investment and an increased role for Iran in foreign affairs, and its effects may already be seen in the increased mandate Rouhani received in this year’s election.

If Rouhani’s increased mandate is indicative of a greater desire by Iranian voters to revitalize the economy and to improve Iran’s standing with the West, it could continue to weaken the nation’s hardline political establishment. Such a shift could also turn the popular perception of the Ayatollah from a revolutionary hero to an unelected dictator. The religiously conservative voters of the country see the Ayatollah as someone elected by the principle of divine right, but it remains to be seen if this unspoken consensus will hold if Iran’s economy improves in the wake of the nuclear deal and increased ties to the West.

Although the Ayatollah has held favor in the post-revolutionary Iranian political system as a divine right theocrat, Rouhani may be setting the stage for the creation of a new political coalition that favors liberalization and reform over conservative religious values, and if such a coalition elects more reform minded candidates after Rouhani’s tenure, the political dynamic between Iran’s elected president and its unelected Supreme Leader could irrevocably be altered, and perhaps the Iranian voters will desire that their vote holds more sway than the fanatical whims of an unelected and unchecked political leader who primarily uses his office for his personal benefit rather than the benefit of the Iranian people.


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