Khamenei: A Counterfeit Leader

We all know that the present Iranian regime systematically uses political expediency to pursue its monopolization of power. But how much is known of the reformists' own political expediency, and at what cost are they hidden from public view? At great cost, if we consider the current struggles of the Green Movement to disentangle itself from the all-powerful authority of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. What if it were more widely known, for example, that he had in effect become leader not through legitimate means but by a forged letter, written supposedly by the previous leader, Khomeini, just before his death? According to the Iranian constitution, the country's supreme leader had to be a grand ayatollah, marja. Khamenei was not even an ayatollah. Before the revolution, he made a living through preaching (rozeh khaani), which even the least educated clergy may do.

Khamenei was never meant to be leader. The grand ayatollah Montazeri had already been elected to succeed Khomeini by the Council of Experts, which was responsible for the succession. But before he could take office he was deposed for his role in exposing the Irangate scandal, which led to the execution of his son in law, and exposing the massacre of political prisoners in 1988. The removal of the only candidate with grand ayatollah status created a vacuum of leadership that had to be filled immediately. The Council of Experts hastily considered various scenarios for choosing the next leaders (a council of initially three, and then five), but none were acceptable. Suddenly, Rafsanjai surprised the Council by introducing a letter from Khomeini, in which he had stated that the next leader need not be a grand ayatollah.

This letter removed the main obstacle preventing Rafsanjani from realizing his plan to become the strong man of Iran. This was to endorse Khamenei, whom he considered to be a weak character, as supreme leader. Then, after removing the post of the premiership, he would relegate its power to the president and extend the power of this role, which was already subordinate to Khamenei's reign. It worked. After two statements from Khomeini in support of Khamenei, the Council of Experts elected him as the supreme leader.

But the surprise appearance of this letter, out of nowhere and in such little time, raised the suspicions of the erstwhile president, A.H. Banisadr. He provided two forensic handwriting experts with a few of Khomeini's letters, letters from Khomeini's son that he received during his presidency, and the letter allegedly from Khomeini. The experts concluded that the letter read by Rafsanjani in the Assembly of Experts had been written by someone nearly 30 years younger than Khomeini, and most probably by his son. Grand ayatollah Montazeri also stated in a later memoir that Ahmad Khomeini used to forge his father's handwriting.

Based on these findings, Le Monde published an article (29/6/1989) which argued that Khamenei had become leader through a forged letter from Khomeini. The Iranian Embassy in France protested vehemently against its publication, and in response, Le Monde challenged the embassy to take the paper to the court with counter-evidence The embassy never took up the challenge.

This information has been available for more than twenty years. Why, then, has the opposition so rarely, if ever, mentioned or referred to it, let alone inform Iranians of such an immensely important fact? The explanation should be sought in the reformist nature of the opposition at its elite levels, which is precisely where we can identify the Achilles heel of the Green Movement. Many of its reformist leaders know that if they make this knowledge public, they will be unable to justify their acceptance of Khamenei's authority. They thus share an interest with Iran's ruling mafia in preventing this knowledge from becoming public information.

The result is a growing frustration of the movement at a mass level, which was partly responsible for its drastic slowdown, before its re-energization as a result of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. After so much bloodshed and mass arrests, many people are unwilling to risk of arrest, torture or execution in exchange for the hope of only minor changes to the social system, while Khamenei remains supreme leader and the political structures remain intact. The slogans in recent demonstrations, in which the youth are asking for Khamenei to follow the destiny of Bin Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, only indicate the growing chasm between the rank and file of the movement and its leadership, which is committed to reform.

The movement thus far suffers from an identity crisis for some obvious reasons. First, despite their hardship and recent arrests, the symbolic leaders of the Green Movement, Mousavi and Karroubi, have still trapped themselves within political conveniences. Second, before the explosion of the revolutions in the Arab countries, the youth in Iran have succumbed to a fear of "committing" another revolution, and hence fear what might happen if the regime collapses (a fear which has been taught to them by reformist intellectuals). Finally, as the result of censorship, the movement has yet failed to identify a democratic and independent political alternative which challenges the regime in its totality. So long as these things do not change, the failing and fragmented regime will continue to inflict misery on the lives of Iranians and keep the country at the sharp edge of domestic and international crisis.