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Is Washington Prepared for a Post-Khamenei Iran?

Jul 31, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

America does not understand Iran (if the baseline
criteria to qualify a country for U.S. invasion is
"know thy enemy," then Iran is hereby disqualified).
Nor does it fully comprehend Iran's multilayered,
complex leadership. For one, Americans pay far too
much attention to the ranting of its lunatic
president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose anti-U.S. and
anti-Israel screeds, while disturbing, hardly
constitute Iranian foreign policy.

Real power lies with Iran's Supreme Leader, not its
president. Hence, Washington should pay closer
attention to the words of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who
remains the final arbiter of all foreign policy
matters. Yet his approach to world politics has been
anything but consistent. He pushed ahead with Iran's
nuclear program in the face of international
opposition, but also showed flickering signs of a
willingness to suspend it. He repeatedly blew off
entreaties to deal positively with the "Great Satan,"
while periodically dropping hints he might favor
restoring relations with Washington. Khamenei
condemned the 9/11 attacks, and a few months later,
there was limited but successful U.S.-Iran cooperation
on Afghanistan (most experts say President Bush's 2002
"Axis of Evil" speech nixed any hope of meaningful
rapprochement). An Iranian overture for dialogue with
the United States, channeled through a Swiss emissary
shortly after the Iraq War began, was reportedly
rebuffed by American diplomats.

Relations between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have also
been strained. After his first batch of anti-Israel
comments, the president was reined in by the Supreme
Leader, who publicly reiterated Iran's policy of
nonaggression to all UN members. Khamenei also
preferred less explosive language to describe Iran's
nuclear program, while continually asserting his
country's right to peaceful atomic power. But he is no
peacenik or democrat. Sure, while casting his vote in
local elections in December 2006, he said the Iranian
public "can play a major role in sealing the fate of
the country and nation and influence the county's
decision-making process," but Khamenei also said he
was not "prepared to allow flawed and non-divine
perspectives and ideas that are aimed at enhancing the
power of the individual to dictate [Iran's] social and
political lives." He has appointed reactionary clerics
to powerful positions and purposefully given the post
of presidency little power or room to maneuver. His
powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps have stamped out
student protests and clamped down on human rights
activists (as the recent spate of arrests of
Iranian-Americans demonstrates).

Hence, that is what makes the death this week of Ali
Meshkini so significant (he died of lung disease). The
ayatollah chaired the Assembly of Experts, an
86-member body that selects the country's Supreme
Leader. His likely successor is rumored to be Ali
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and
behind-the-scenes powerbroker, not to mention once one
of the world's richest men, according to Forbes.
Rafsanjani also chairs something called the Expediency
Council, whose powers he has expanded (the body
arbitrates between Iran's parliament and the Guardian
Council, a powerful body that has veto power over all
parliamentary decisions). Khamenei's health has taken
a turn for the worse (earlier this year he dodged a
Mark Twain moment when rumors of his demise turned out
to be grossly exaggerated by false media reports). If
Khamenei checks out, he has no clear successor.
Rafsanjani could pull a Cheney -- that is, tasked with
the job of selecting a supreme leader, he might reach
for the closest mirror and choose himself (though his
religious credentials have been called into question).
Another possibility, experts say, is replacing the
single post of Supreme Leader with a body of Grand
Ayatollahs.

Regardless, Americans should take note of the fact
that within Iran's leadership, there are a number of
competing foreign policy agendas (for instance, the
views of Iran's foreign ministry and Revolutionary
Guard Corps toward Iraq often clash). Washington
should wake up to these divisions and not put so much
stock in the disturbing musings of Ahmadinejad. Nor
should it expect the regime to fall anytime soon.
"Abrupt domestic change in Iran is unlikely in the
near term and would not necessarily lead to an
improvement of the status quo," writes Karim
Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment
"The only groups that are both armed and organized at
the moment are not liberal democrats but the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps and Bassij militia." Yet
that is hardly to say Americans should not prepare for
the day when the position of Iran's Supreme Leader
changes hands, which may come sooner rather than
later.