…And what about Ali Khamenei? (Iran Review, June, 2013)

One man in Iran must have slept better since the election of Hassan Rouhani : it is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

In 2009, when hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Iranians were demonstrating in the streets, the Pasdaran kept for about a fortnight a plane ready to exfiltrate him out of the country, probably towards Syria. The regime vacillated upon its base. Shortly after the hasty proclamation of Ahmadinejad as the winner, Khamenei, hoping to silence the protesters, presented the result as a "Judgment of God". With no avail. Why having thus given all the signals of a blatant and massive fraud?

It seems clear today that the heart of the Regime, Ali Khamenei and his close affiliates, got somehow persuaded that Mousavi's candidacy was supported by a foreign plot, trying to stir a kind of Iranian "Velvet Revolution". Khamenei himself must not have been too difficult to convince, having developed towards Mousavi a solid hatred from the time, in the eighties, when the latter, as Prime Minister, was constantly trying to confine Khamenei, then President of the Republic, to protocolar tasks. But on what grounds could the Council of Guardians eliminate him? He had an impeccable record at the head of the Government during the "Sacred Defense" against Saddam, and had since then maintained a more than discreet presence in public life. His disqualification could only come from the polls. It was then essential that he should not reach the second round, where he could have coalesced all the oppositions against Ahmadinejad. Hence the necessity of a clear victory of Ahmadinejad in a first and last round.

These are the nightmares which must have haunted Khamenei during the four years of Ahmadinejad’s second presidency. In 2013, the heart of the Regime, adopted opposite tactics : eliminate any dangerous candidate at the early stage of the Council of Guardians' selection, before the heat and excitement of the campaign. This is how Rahim Mashaei, the highly visible and controversial Ahmadinejad's crony was disqualified and, even more risky, Rafsandjani, Eminence of the Islamic Republic, on the sole ground, carefully distilled to the public, of his old age. Nobody moved. What a relief!

With selected candidates all perfectly loyal to the Leader, Khamenei had no difficulty to proclaim that he had no favorite. The only remaining problem, with candidates of medium to low visibility, was the question of citizens' participation. This could be easily doctored. But then came the miracle of the campaign, during which the remaining candidates, entering into their roles, adopting more and more contrasting positions, started stirring the public's interest. And in a few days, enthusiasm built up in favor of the only candidate who spoke openly about political freedom, and most of all about the return of prosperity through the easing of international sanctions and the reformation of Ahmadinejad's erratic economic policy. No need, this time, to intervene into the polls' results. To the surprise of all, including Khamenei, Hassan Rouhani, with 50.7% of the votes, wrapped up the election from the first round.

Ali Khamenei has all the reasons to be happy with the election of Hassan Rouhani. He has known him since the beginning of the Revolution, and as soon as elected as Supreme Leader, in 1989, gave him a seat in the Supreme National Security Council. He appointed him for a time as Secretary General of the same body, and even as his personal representative in the Council up to his election as President. Khamenei is not bothered by Rouhani's proximity with his arch rival Rafsandjani, having been able to verify his loyalty when Rouhani was in charge of the delicate nuclear negotiation with the Europeans, from 2003 to 2005. He knows from experience that even in case of diverging points of view, Rouhani will never take him by surprise. He gave him wide margins of negotiation at this time, even when Rouhani’s policy of engagement with the Europeans ran against his own convictions. Rouhani is the man who convinced Khamenei, by the end of 2003, that the time had come to put an end to the clandestine nuclear military program run by the Pasdaran. Not because of the pressure created by the American presence in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but because the most dangerous enemy of Iran, Saddam Hussein, had fallen, and it was finally clear that Iraq had not been trying to get the Bomb. And perhaps most of all because Iran, reciprocating the European demonstration of goodwill, had accepted to implement the IAEA Additional Protocol opening the whole Iranian territory to international inspections. From then on, if such a clandestine program went on, the risk to be caught red-handed was definitely too high.

As we know today from the American Intelligence Community and IAEA reports, this difficult decision was not only taken, but implemented. Rouhani is the man who steered the whole process, never failing, of course, to report to Khamenei. The Supreme Leader saw that he had the capacity to manage tense situations at the highest level. And he can feel assured today that Rouhani, thanks to his long practice of the avenues of power, has the capacity to put together an Administration composed of the best elements available in the country. Khamenei has then all the reasons to leave him ample leeway for bringing in as soon as possible significant results. The most important of these reasons being the fact that the Islamic Republic, after the success of the last election, can expect to be granted a new lease in terms of credibility, and even of legitimacy, if it can demonstrate its capacity to respond to the expectations of the Iranian electorate. Of course, nor the best, nor the worst, is certain. But, in the short run, Khamenei can hope to have finally encountered in Rouhani the ideal associate, able to prepare the country for his own succession.

For one has to remember that the Supreme Leader has occupied his charge for almost 25 years. He will soon be 74 and is not in perfect health. He should have started worrying about the future of Iran beyond him. And if only for preparing his own place in history, he should aspire to leave to his still unknown successor a country a little less depressed economically, better assured of its security, and less at loggerheads with its environment. For such a task, Rouhani could be the right man, in the right place, coming at the right moment.

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