In its more than three decades at the helm of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has fought to consolidate power at home and expand the influence of the regime across the region.
But the 80-year-old leader is facing his toughest challenge as he tries to unify a fractured factory and calm people down over alleged cover-up of the cause of a plane crash last week.
In recent days, public mourning over the American assassination of military commander Qassem Soleimani has turned to anger after it emerged that Iran had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines plane, killing 176 people.
“The relationship between the nation and the state has never been more divided than it is today, while even within the political system politicians accuse each other of hiding and pretending,” said a reformist analyst.
There are now “accusations that the state is systematically lying and therefore Ayatollah Khamenei has become the main target of public anger. [as the top leader] and the government of [Hassan] Rouhani is seen as too lame to make changes. “
Under Iran’s theocratic rule, the supreme leader is seen as infallible, enjoying “absolute” authority over all affairs in the country, including the military. After Soleimani’s death, he authorized the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to launch missile attacks against US forces in Iraq. No American soldiers were killed and Iran sent a message to the United States that it would have been the only direct military retaliation if the United States had not reacted.
The supreme leader won compliments at home for a strategy that saw him avenge the death of Soleimani, but avoid war with the United States. “Which regional leader, or any leader in the world, would have dared to challenge the United States as Mr. Khamenei did?” Said one member of the regime. “Nobody.”
Clerical student of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic, Khamenei spent years in prison before the 1979 revolution. Since then, he has held various positions in government and acted as head of the Revolutionary Guard before serving as president and then supreme leader. following Khomeini’s death. With the Revolutionary Guard’s admission that the Ukrainian plane had been shot down by mistake, thousands of people took to the streets, many sang offensive slogans not only against the guards but also the supreme chief himself.
“The accident was like a huge earthquake. . . it showed all the inefficiencies of the system, corruption and the lack of coordination between the military and public sectors, “said the analyst.
For many people, what was worse than the accident was the alleged cover-up of the cause, not only by the people, but also by Rouhani, the centrist president re-elected in 2017 in a landslide. In theory, according to the command of the supreme leader, Rouhani had been undermined by rigid forces and humiliated, analysts say.
“Managing the country in this way did not [good] result while facing broad divisions, “said Ali Shakouri-Rad, a reformist politician in a Twitter post.” Hiding reality by shooting missiles is like launching acid in front of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The only solution is good governance. “
As public anger grows – and the economy is crushed by U.S. sanctions – the supreme leader, known for his pragmatism, may make small reforms to ease tensions but he is unlikely to institute major changes. “If street protests get out of control, we will witness a brutal repression similar to that of Tiananmen in China [in 1989]”, Said the analyst.
“Reformists should say goodbye to politics and leave,” said the insider.
The supreme leader remains focused on regional policy, as carried out through the Revolutionary Guard, which remains unconditionally loyal to him.
The plan is for “the withdrawal of the US military from the region in the long run, while our medium-term focus will be on Iraq,” said the insider. What Iran wants from the Iraqi government is “to stop its inactive approach and take action to get rid of both the United States and its educated politicians in the United States and the United Kingdom.”
With this new approach, he added, Iran, despite its years of support for the Assad regime in conflict-torn Syria, would effectively leave Syria in Russia. “In a choice between military power and reforms, Khamenei chose the growing military power for which he must maintain good relations with Russia and China,” said the analyst.
On the domestic front, reformists suspect that the supreme leader may authorize hard-line supporters to eliminate an older generation of politicians – conservatives and reformists mostly in their 60s or 70s – and empower younger politicians nearby to the guards. Last year he promised to build “a great Islamic Iran” based on “religious and revolutionary youth”.
This week, about a third of current MPs were banned from participating in the parliamentary survey next month. Although Khamenei allows reformist candidates – as he has done in the past to help increase voter turnout – many people have concluded that polls no longer make a difference in their lives.
“Spectacular disqualification for reformist candidates. . . the next parliament should be controlled by “religious and revolutionary youth” favored by the supreme leader, “said a reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh in a Twitter post.” He wants the country not to deviate from the goals it has set for the next 40 years”.
During his three-decade rule, the supreme leader wore a keffiyeh – a black and white Palestinian checkered scarf – under his guise in a symbolic gesture of support for “resistance” groups in the Middle East. “This keffiyeh it clearly shows in which direction its foreign policies are going, “said the analyst.” At home, the Islamic republic will not collapse or reform itself – at least until Mr. Khamenei will be alive. “