Ayatollah Khamenei at Unprecedented Religio-Political Summits: The Hidden Imam's Infallible Representative

The unexpectedly ugly political dispute between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his spiritual father, Ayatollah Khamenei, which climaxed with threats and counter-threats, may be reaching its conclusion. The outcome seems to be a religio-political hyperbole. During Ahmadinejad's first term in office, the father-son duo seemed in perfect harmony on major domestic and foreign policy issues. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was chosen and supported unconditionally during the presidential elections of 2005 by a small core of clerical and military leaders who worried about the long-term consequences of Ayatollah Khamenei's waning appeal and authority during the 16 years of Rafsanjani and Khatami's presidencies. The hyperactive Ahmadinejad promised loyalty and unwavering obedience to the Supreme Leader. His first four years in office were marked by Iran's rush to become a nuclear power, its increased role in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine and claim to the leadership of the Arab masses against their governments by leading the anti-Semitic fringe of the international anti-Zionist camp. At home, he flagged the imminent return of the Hidden Imam and described his tenure as preparing the conditions for his return. During this period he had the unequivocal support and blessing of Khamenei.

During the 2009 presidential elections and their immediate aftermath, Ayatollah Khamenei threw his personal weight behind Ahmadinejad. He tied his religious and political fortunes with the president, thinking that he could trust him to the end. In the seven brutal months of post-election crisis, which brought Khamenei's rule to the brink of collapse, the spiritual father stood fast by his son against all counsel to the contrary. By the time Ahmadinejad began to assert his independence from Khamenei over the appointment of Mashaei as his First Vice President on July 17, 2009, the Supreme Leader was too invested and implicated in his hand-picked president. In the public eye, Ahmadinejad represented Khamenei in every conceivable manner. Ahmadinejad was not only the Supreme Leader's political choice and "democratically elected" appointee but his voice, his political image and the emanation of his light. Ahmadinejad's open dissent confronted Khamenei with another political threat, which he turned into an unprecedented religio-political opportunity.

As long as Ahmadinejad fully mirrored the Supreme Leader's wishes, there was no reason for flexing muscles. War over religious and political legitimacy, authority and righteousness broke out the moment Ahmadinejad disobeyed Khamenei. The public was told by a president under fire that the only reason Khamenei had supported him during the 2009 elections was to maintain his own position, which would have otherwise been swept away by Mir Hossein Mousavi's presidency. The claim by Ahmadinejad's partisans that of the "24 million votes" that he received in 2009, only 7 million came from Khamenei and his supporters must have destabilized and angered the Supreme Leader. While the President and the Supreme Leader's camps exposed and accused one another, the people either developed greater approbation for the Green Movement's political position and disdain for the foul play in the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad camp or began to admire Ahmadinejad for his audacity in standing up to the Supreme Leader. The tables had to be turned to the Supreme Leader's advantage.

Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who had been Ahmadinejad's key mentor in the 2005 and 2009 elections, was the first to lead the assault against the "ungrateful" president. As early as April 4, 2011, Mesbah Yazdi referred to Ahmadinejad and his team as the gravest threat to Islam and intimated that they were "freemason" infiltrators. In Mesbah Yazdi's vernacular, a "freemason" is an anti-clerical person. The systematic attacks on Ahmadinejad and Mashaei in the mass media as leaders of the corrupt and "deviationist tendency" were followed by calls to oust them. Forcing Ahmadinejad out of office in the middle of his term, after he had been "forced" into office in 2009, would have once again been construed by the public as another episode in the Supreme Leaders' string of political errors or bad judgements.

To save face, Khamenei needed to keep a subdued Ahmadinejad in office for the remainder of his term. Ahmadinejad needed to be weakened yet operational and under constant threat of a vote of no confidence by Parliament. On May 31, 2011, Ayatollah Abdolnabi Namazi, the Friday prayer leader of Kashan, announced that the Supreme Leader had ordered the arrest of officials close to Mashaei but had ruled against the arrest of Mashaei himself. All of Ahmadinejad's important, independent political initiatives, such as taking over the Ministry of Oil, were reversed by Parliament. His first circle of advisers -- Mashaei, Rahimi, Javanfekr and Baqai -- was subjected to constant threats and rumours of impending arrest and imprisonment for financial wrongdoing. Finally Mashaei was to be singled out, politically ruined and made to disappear from the political scene.

On June 4, 2011 Hojatoleslam Mehdi Taeb explained that by exposing Mashaei as the culprit, blame and pressure on Ahmadinejad would diminish. Taeb characterized Mashaei as a complex yogi whose divinations came true but who was also an enemy spy and a mole for the Jews. On the next day, Mesbah Yazdi added more colour to the picture by claiming that "the principle teacher of this deviant tendency was Iblis" (Satan). Mesbah Yazdi intimated that Ahmadinejad had been bewitched by Mashaei, who claimed to be in contact with the Hidden Imam. Dividing up the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Siamese twins was the first step toward creating a space for Ahmadinejad to politically manoeuvre in so that he could fall back into line or accept the consequences.

Faced with the string of arrests among his second tier of political collaborators, Ahmadinejad threatened that his "red line" was the security of the members of his government, implying that he would resign if they were arrested. Once again Ahmadinejad needed to be taught a lesson for his political misconduct. He was in no position to set conditions for the Supreme Leader. To discipline him, rumours by highly placed security sources began circulating to the effect that certain members of his cabinet connected with the "deviationist tendency" would shortly be arrested. Ahmadinejad was forced to back off. The president was reminded by Sheykh Jafar Shajuni, who implicitly compared him to a television set and the Supreme Leader to its owner, that Khamenei wished to "fix and keep" him rather than replace him. The momentum against the "deviationist tendency" provided an ideal opportunity for Ayatollah Khamenei to assert his religio-political authority and remind all dissidents, present and future, as well as the common folk, who the undisputed single leader of the country was.

As of July 10, 2011, a coordinated campaign redefined Ayatollah Khamenei's religio-political position and elevated it beyond any possible questioning, let alone reproach by mere mortals. The purpose of this campaign was to reverse the Supreme Leader's political credibility crunch by bestowing him with unprecedentedly vast worldly powers, backed by the Hidden World. The purpose of the campaign was threefold: first, to identify Ayatollah Khamenei's political position as superior to and beyond the popular will of the people and the three branches of government; second, to assert that no one could be in contact with the Twelfth Imam except him; third, that Khamenei's decisions were those of the Hidden Imam's and therefore he was infallible and immaculate.

On July 20, 2011, Mahdavi Kani, the President of the Assembly of Experts, acknowledged the separation of power in the Islamic Republic but reminded his audience that the Supreme Leader stood at the apex of the system, had the final say and was the final arbitrator of differences among the three powers. On the same day, Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani claimed that the three branches of government become "acceptable and legitimate only if the Guardian Jurist oversees them" and "controls the rule of the people by the people." About a week earlier, Ali Saeedi, a cleric and the Supreme Leader's representative in the Guardian Corps of the Islamic Revolution, had asserted that the people could change the executive and legislative powers, but the Guardian or Khamenei's position was permanent.

On July 18, Mesbah Yazdi asserted that "whoever wishes to please the Hidden Imam needs to secure the satisfaction of the Supreme Leader, since the Guardian Jurist is the person who delivers the Imam's orders to the people." On the next day, Alamol-Hoda, the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, assailed those individuals who claimed to be in contact with the Hidden Imam. He informed his audience that "the Guardian Jurist" was the only medium through which the Hidden Imam could be contacted during his occultation and that the Guardian Jurist or Ayatollah Khamenei was the Imam's under-secretary for communications and public relations. These exaggerated statements came on the heels of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi's watershed pronouncement. He opined that the Guardian Jurist was appointed by the Hidden Imam and his orders were those of the Imam, who had also commanded people to obey the instructions of his (appointed) Guardian. Yazdi went on to add that "the Absolutist Guardian Jurist [Ayatollah Khamenei] can never err in his decisions," since the Hidden Imam will guide him where he may be susceptible to mistakes.

Having repressed the popular Green Movement, Ayatollah Khamenei has been successful in containing the second internal challenge to his absolute authority. He has now been promoted by his "perceptive" clerical followers to a super-human status. In certain circles, he is already being addressed as Imam Khamenei. Can the mirage of combining ultimate religious and political powers guarantee tenure and prevent worldly political errors and misdeeds? Did such self-proclaimed powers by the 16th-century Shah Ismail Safavi, the quintessentially occult Iranian King whom Ahmadinejad has recently applauded, save him from his sad fate?