Iran's Khamenei faces new struggles as he celebrates 81st birthday

Khamenei’s 80th year was an annus horribilis by any measure

A volunteer from Basij forces wearing a protective suit and face mask sprays disinfectant as he sanitizes a bus station, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) fears, in Tehran, Iran (photo credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/ALI KHARA VIA REUTERS)
A volunteer from Basij forces wearing a protective suit and face mask sprays disinfectant as he sanitizes a bus station, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) fears, in Tehran, Iran
Amid Iran’s satellite launch, harassment of US warships, and attacks on coalition troops, a recent development has gone underreported: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei turned 81 on April 19.
Although official documents in Iran list his birthday as being in July, the supreme leader’s website recognizes April 19 as the real date. The octogenarian is one of the longest-serving leaders in the Middle East. His power, presence and position extend well beyond the borders of the Islamic Republic.
Khamenei’s 80th year was an annus horribilis by any measure: protests over gas policies led to as many as 1,500 deaths; a US drone strike took out his top mastermind Qasem Soleimani; there was a record-low turnout in Iran’s parliamentary elections; and the coronavirus pandemic has shaken Iranian society.
But the supreme leader has persisted, with a recent propaganda poster from his office carrying the slogan “Hurting but dignified.” Early indications reveal that this year will be one of consolidation at home and adaptation abroad.
Domestic control
Domestically, the results of the last parliamentary election offer a guide to Khamenei’s thinking. More than 7,000 candidates were disqualified from running out of more than 15,000 hopefuls, including some 90 sitting members of parliament. In contrast to the last legislative elections of 2016, when President Hassan Rouhani’s allies won all 30 seats from Tehran and 41% of the overall seats, the results from the 2020 election were a setback to Rouhani’s brand of politics, with hardliners winning 221 out of 290 seats, an increase of 83 seats.
The personalities behind the winning coalition reveal Khamenei’s hidden hand, with three close associates playing leading roles in the election. The triumphant coalition - named the Council of Islamic Revolution Forces Alliance - was chaired by Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel. Haddad Adel isn’t just a former speaker of parliament but is more importantly an in-law of the supreme leader. While Haddad Adel himself wasn’t a candidate, additional Khamenei confidants found themselves in the top slots.
Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who won the most votes in February as a former mayor of Tehran and commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Air Force, is a contender to become the next speaker. There is evidence to suggest that at one point he had a political partnership with the supreme leader’s influential son, Mojtaba Khamenei. A leaked 2008 US State Department cable once included an account which described him as the “’backbone’ of Qalibaf’s past and continuing election campaigns.”
Although Qalibaf has demonstrated some independence during his career, and while there is speculation the supreme leader’s son once counseled his father to switch his support to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election, he remains a trusted member of Khamenei’s larger patronage network, with the supreme leader finding a seat for him on the Expediency Council after his service as mayor of Tehran. After Qalibaf, Mostafa Mir-Salim won the second-most votes in Tehran. Like Qalibaf, Mir-Salim is a Khamenei appointee to the Expediency Council. Mir-Salim also served as a senior aide to the supreme leader during his presidency.
This stands in contrast to the winning slate of the 2016 elections, with the less reliable former Reformist vice president Mohammad Reza Aref, who once demanded the release of the leaders of the Green Movement who remain under house arrest, receiving the most votes from the List of Hope. Ali Motahari, who has questioned the supreme leader’s authority, also won a seat in the 10th parliament. But Motahari has become so controversial to the Islamic Republic’s establishment, he wasn’t even allowed to run in the 2020 election. Thus, trusted Khamenei associates have been engineering and pioneering the new parliament.
IN ADDITION to this consolidation of personalities, Khamenei and the Islamic republic’s deep state have slowly chipped away at parliament’s already limited authority over the past year. The creation of the Supreme Economic Coordination Council (ECC) in 2018, which greenlighted the Islamic Republic’s new gas policy in November, raised hackles from members of parliament, criticizing the body’s usurpation of legislative prerogatives. Khamenei reportedly went as far as to send a note to the legislative chamber, warning its members not to oppose the gas policy.
There were similar complaints over the Expediency Council’s dithering over legislation passed by parliament to satisfy the Financial Action Task Force’s action plan for Iran. That’s not to mention that in March, the supreme leader approved the use of Article 85 of the constitution for this year’s budget, which bypassed consideration by a full session of parliament due to the coronavirus.
These developments are evidence that Khamenei is consolidating the personalities and processes of the Islamic republic to affect his succession as he ages. The new parliament will be in office until 2024, when the supreme leader would turn 85. The presence of loyal aides-de-camp, the sidelining of troublemakers, and the centralization of authority are all part of this process.
Regional Adaptation
The death of Qasem Soleimani left a void in implementation of Iran's regional strategy. There are indications that since January, the regime has struggled to recreate a durable oversight mechanism for its proxies and partners, given Soleimani’s singular imprimatur over Iran’s Axis of Resistance after two decades as commander of the Quds Force.
This has manifested itself in a fragmentation of control, with four players emerging to fill the leadership vacuum: Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani; Lebanese Hezbollah’s representative in Iraq Mohammad Kawtharani; the new head of the Quds Force Esmail Ghaani; and his deputy Mohammad Hejazi.
Soleimani’s fluency in Arabic increased his ability to manage and meddle throughout the region. This stands in contrast to his replacement, Esmail Ghaani, who doesn’t share his command of the language. In addition to a language barrier, Ghaani doesn’t command the same charisma as Soleimani in Iran’s western theater, with his experience resting in Quds Force operations to the east, particularly Afghanistan.
That’s not to mention Ghaani spending much of his career as a deputy commander, in contrast with the Islamic Republic’s deep bench of experienced officers who have helmed multiple armed organs, like Ali Shamkhani as a former head of the IRGC Navy and the regular navy, and Hejazi, as a former commander of the Basij armed force and a one-time deputy commander-in-chief of the IRGC.
This is all in addition to Shamkhani being an ethnic Arab himself, Hejazi’s recent experience coordinating Quds Force operations in Lebanon, and Kawtharani taking over “some of the political coordination of Iran-aligned paramilitary groups” after Soleimani’s death, according to the US State Department. These experiences position these three men to compensate for Ghaani’s linguistic and geographic weaknesses.
The concerns over Ghaani’s ability to serve as an effective replacement surfaced as he traveled to Syria and Iraq in recent weeks - his first public trips since ascending to the top job - following a similar trip to Baghdad by Shamkhani. Arab media reports suggested Ghaani struggled to unify the rank and file of Iran’s Shi’ite allies in Iraq, and that Muqtada al-Sadr reportedly nixed a previously scheduled meeting with him. While Iran still succeeded in the torpedoing of Adnan al-Zurfi’s nomination for prime minister of Iraq and the ushering in of a more acceptable replacement, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, fissures among Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) remain.
Kata'ib Hezbollah described al-Kadhimi’s nomination as prime minister as a “declaration of war against the Iraqi people,” dubbing him a “suspicious figure,” despite support from other Iran-backed Shi’ite elements.
Likewise, Kata'ib Hezbollah didn’t appear to sign on to a joint statement among other PMFs this month saying US forces would be dealt with as occupiers. This complicated landscape suggests over the next year that Iran’s supreme leader will be relying on multiple actors with mixed results, until the regime establishes a durable oversight structure for its Axis of Resistance.
As Iran’s supreme leader celebrates a new year, he’s grappling with multiple crises: over legitimacy, leadership and legacy. Over the coming months, we will continue to witness fortification at home and improvisation abroad.
The writer is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He is on Twitter @JasonMBrod