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Inside Iran: What Forces Will Decide its Future, and How?

Inside Iran: What Forces Will Decide its Future, and How?

(Mehdi Khalaji, February 27, 2020)

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About the speaker

Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East. A Shiite theologian by training, Mr. Khalaji has also served on the editorial boards of two prominent Iranian periodicals and produced for the BBC as well as the U.S. government’s Persian news service.

From 1986 to 2000, Mr. Khalaji trained in the seminaries of Qom, the traditional center of Iran’s clerical establishment. There he studied theology and jurisprudence, earning a doctorate and researching widely on modern intellectual and philosophical-political developments in Iran and the wider Islamic and Western worlds. In Qom, and later in Tehran, Mr. Khalaji launched a career in journalism, first serving on the editorial board of a theological journal, Naqd va Nazar, and then the daily Entekhab. In addition to his own writing, he has translated the works of the humanist Islamic scholar Muhammad Arkoun.

In 2000, Mr. Khalaji moved Paris where he studied Shiite theology and exegesis in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He also worked for BBC Persian as a political analyst on Iranian affairs, eventually becoming a broadcaster for the Prague-based Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. At Radio Farda, he produced news, features, and analysis on a range of Middle Eastern, Iranian, and Islamic issues.

Mr. Khalaji writes a bilingual English and Persian blog, MehdiKhalaji.com. He previously addressed Westminster on the subject of How the Iranian Revolution Changed the Role of the Shia Clergy.

Transcript

Robert R. Reilly:

I am delighted to welcome back this evening Mehdi Khalaji, who has spoken at Westminster before, so it was overdue to have you back tonight and I appreciate you coming here. Mehdi is a Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on the policies of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East. He is a Shiite theologian by training, which he received in Qom, and he also served on the editorial boards of two prominent Iranian periodicals, and produced for the BBC as well as the U.S. government Farsi broadcaster.

So I mentioned he was trained in seminaries in Qom, and he studied both theology and jurisprudence, earning a doctorate. I also note that he has translated the works of one of the great Arab Muslim intellectual reformers, Muhammad Arkoun.

He previously addressed the Westminster Institute on the subject of How the Iranian Revolution Changed the Role of the Shia Clergy. And if you have not seen it, I suggest you go to our YouTube channel, as have four thousand other people, to watch that superb presentation.

I also should mention that he is currently writing a political biography of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. I will stop there with just a note on his most recent publication out in print today with the intriguing title, “Reading Trump in Tehran.” You can also go to the website of The Washington Institute if you want to just download it from there. Tonight, Mehdi will be talking about, “Inside Iran: What Forces Will Decide its Future, and How?”

Mehdi Khalaji:

Coronavirus

Thank you, Bob, for your introduction, and thank you all for coming tonight. I am very happy to be able to speak here for the second time. That is a great privilege for me. Before I start to talk about the subject that was announced here, I would like to say a few words about the coronavirus crisis in Iran, which is the second country after China who has the most people who are infected by this virus.

What is interesting in Iran is that the virus basically started to spread from my hometown, Qom. Qom is a center for Shia clergy, and it is close to Tehran, it is about 100 kilometres south of Tehran, but usually you would expect it to emerge in, for example, Tehran or a big city like that. Why Qom?

So people ask why this started in Qom. There might by several reasons for that, including the fact that Qom probably has the largest Chinese community in Iran because of the seminary, so according to the official statistics, we have more than 700 Chinese citizens who reside in Iran and study religion in Qom seminary. They live in Qom with their families, so there should be over 2,000 Chinese who live in town.

Before Khamenei came to power, Qom was mostly a religious city. There was nothing there. It is in the middle of the desert. There was just a seminary. It was a holy city. It was not a commercial city. In terms of the economy, it was not regarded as an important town in the country. But after Khamenei came to power, because he needed to prove his legitimacy or consolidate his power, he needed to refashion the holy cities, both Qom and Mashhad. So he made Qom a center for a new province called the Province of Qom, and turned it into a very multidimensional city with lots of economic activities.

And in brief, it seems that this city has very close financial ties with Chinese companies and Chinese businessmen. Two days before the official announcement of the outbreak of Coronavirus in Qom, a fabric businessman from China came to Qom and died. So it looks like that was one of the reasons for making Qom the center of the coronavirus in the country. This virus went to Iraq, it went to Afghanistan from Iran by passenger, to Lebanon by passenger, and all these passengers were from Qom. So Qom is not only spreading the virus throughout the country, but also throughout the whole region.

What is interesting in the case of Iran is that for different reasons, including the parliamentary election, which was held last Friday, the government refrained from releasing accurate information about this virus, and they have hidden lots of facts from people. In other words, they both lied about that problem and also they did not take it seriously.

So this is why you see some high-ranking officials in Iran have got the virus, and they came out publicly by releasing the video clip, they said that I have got the coronavirus. And probably there is no other country like Iran with such a large number of officials and renowned figures, including the deputy health minister, the head of the national security committee of Majlis, the Parliament, the adviser to the president, and several other people. It is amazing that these people got the virus. It is both because they did not take it seriously and because the government told too many lies that many of them believed.

The government is still not telling the truth about many important facts that are happening, including the number of people who got affected, the number of people who died, especially about Qom. They have to take precautionary measures a long time ago and they did not. In particular, they did not want to put Qom under quarantine, and they did not want to close the shrines of Qom, so the clergy resisted health officials.

It was interesting how after about one week of fighting between city officials, health ministry officials, and clerical officials, finally, the government convinced the clergy that the shrine should be closed, and this is very interesting because this is happening for the first time in modern times that the Shrine of Masumeh in Qom was closed. Also, this is happening for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic that the Friday Prayer, which is a very important political gathering, was canceled, not only in Tehran, but in 22 other important cities, province centers, including Qom. So this has become a big deal in Iran not because of the virus itself, but because it has significantly damaged people’s trust in not only the government, but also the whole health system in Iran.

So, for example, I was talking to my mom this morning, and she said that she has a fever and she is not feeling well. I told her to go to the hospital. She said, “No, all of the hospitals are contaminated,” so people do not trust doctors, and hospitals, and nurses, and this is amazing. If you look at the pictures and video clips from the city of Qom, it looks like Wuhan, nobody walks on the street. We are approaching the Nowruz holiday, the beginning of the Persian year, so usually, people start to shop for the new year like Christmas. But nobody is in the shopping centers. Despite this fact, there is a significant increase in the value of gold, a significant decrease in the value of the country’s currency, toman, versus foreign currencies, and the whole export-import trade is facing serious problems.

Government response to Coronavirus

The main problem is the way the government is handling the crisis. The way they are handling the crisis is consistent with the way they handle other issues. For example, about two months ago we had this issue of the downing of the Ukrainian passenger airline, and the government kept the news from people for three days, and then started to lie about it. And even after months, they refrained from delivering the black box of the airplane to the Ukrainian government, and they are hiding a lot about that. They have a very disrespectful attitude towards the victims of the accident, so it is totally consistent with the way they are handling other crises in the country.

They think that as Hannah Arendt, the German-American philosopher, says, totalitarian systems believe they are omnipotent, so they think they can do whatever they want. They think that they have lots of power, and by power, they can handle everything, they can solve all problems. This is what is happening in Iran. For example, the first reaction from Supreme Leader Khamenei was that ‘this coronavirus outbreak is an act of our enemies’, and they wanted to discourage people from going to the ballot box to vote. They provided a very typical conspiracy theory about that, but after so many people got infected, finally they recognized that this is a serious problem. Canadian officials estimate that more than 23,000 people in Iran are affected by this virus, which is an amazing number.

From Khomeini to Khamenei

I am going to say a few words tonight about who runs the country and what he wants, and what happens if he disappears from Iranian politics or he goes away. You know that in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei came to power as the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini. Nobody appointed Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic became the Supreme Leader out of revolution. He was the natural leader for the government. Nobody gave him this kind of position and he did not need anyone.

When he died – for many reasons – the government was in big trouble because those who had been real Ayatollahs were not faithful to the ideology of the government and those who had been committed to the ideology of the government were not Ayatollahs. So they tried to (in a totally artificial way) groom a non-Ayatollah as an Ayatollah, and appoint him as the Supreme Leader. So Mr. Khamenei in the morning was a priest, and in the afternoon, he became a Pope. In the morning, he was Hujjat al-Islam. In the afternoon, he became Ayatollah. It was totally unconstitutional.

The reason they appointed him was because he is a very good preacher and orator. He speaks very well. Despite the fact that he has [only] a clerical education, he is in love with Persian literature, so he knows the classical literature very well, and he reads the modern novels. He loves Tolstoy, he hates Dostoevsky, so he is a bookish man. He is a sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet, and the people love sayyid, descendants of the Prophet.

So he was a good speaker and they did not really want to replace Khomeini because Khomeini was a charismatic leader. He was an exceptional person. He was an exceptional politician in the history of the 20th century, not only in Iran, but in world history. He was irreplaceable, so they tried to make this position ceremonial. They appointed someone as Supreme Leader just to provide legitimacy to the government, and people like Rafsanjani thought that, ‘I will become the President of the country and amend the constitution in a way that gives lots of power to the President, and I will run the country’.

So Rafsanjani played an important role in making Khamenei the Supreme Leader, thinking that he would stay there and Rafsanjani would run the country. ‘We do not need him’. It is very interesting. If you read Rafsanjani’s diaries, which were published in several volumes, no one in the Islamic Republic has written and published such extensive diaries per year. He says that it was about – if I am not mistaken – seven months after Khamenei was appointed as Supreme Leader when Rafsanjani was the new President, he says that Khamenei came to his office or home, and he said that, “I have gotten bored. I have nothing to do.” That is amazing, but the guy was really bored.

Khomeini and Khamenei Compared

So he knew that he was appointed as the Supreme Leader exactly because he was no one, because he was weak. But for me it is a fact that most people look at Khomeini as an exceptional person, who was an exceptional person, and look at Khamenei as a mediocre politician, but I think we have to give Khamenei lots of credit because Khomeini did not need to plan for anything. He had currency. By waving his hand in the air, he could bring millions of people to the street.

He did not need any bureaucracy. If you look at his office, his office was a one-man show, his son, that is it. Anyone who wants to say something to Khomeini, they had to contact his son. If Khomeini wanted to deliver a message to someone, it was [delivered] through the son. That is it, very simple office.

But Khamenei did not have charisma. He did not have clerical credentials. His authority was not recognized by the political elite. He had lots of people within the political elite who hated him, and that is why he needed to carefully plan to consolidate his power. So I would say that the most important point of strength of Khamenei is his constant awareness of his weakness. That made him always cautious in both his domestic politics and foreign policy, and always mistrustful. He does not trust anyone, even his own son.

Khamenei’s Bureaucracy

So I just explained how Khomeini’s office was very simple, just one person was running the show, his son, Ahmad, but Khamenei has a large office with a very sophisticated bureaucracy, consisting of more than four thousand employees, and only eleven thousand military guards are in charge of the security of his house and his office. This is amazing. This is just his office.

Besides this office, he has representatives in all government bureaus, in all universities, in all provinces, so he has a large network of representatives and obviously, he is supervising and running a government behind the government. So I do not like to use the term shadow government because shadow government means something else in countries like Britain, but there is a real government behind the government.

I explain how he developed this government. Gradually, Khamenei found out that he cannot force his authority through the democratic institutions. So the President is very powerful, has democratic legitimacy, and Rafsanjani was an especially exceptional politician in the Islamic Republic. He was very powerful under Khomeini and powerful during his presidency. He found that it is not easy to actually impose himself in Iranian politics through normal mechanisms, so he needed to develop very special mechanisms to consolidate his power.

Khamenei’s Generational Transformation

I think he is a good reader of the Iranian Constitution. He looked at the Constitution. When he came to power, the Iran-Iraq eight-year war had just ended. Everyone was thinking that after the Iran-Iraq War, the military would lose its importance, especially the IRGC, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps; it becomes irrelevant. Many people were talking or suggesting or pushing for the integration of the regular army, Artesh, with the Revolutionary Guard, so they said that we do not need the Revolutionary Guard anymore.

He resisted this suggestion, this campaign, and he not only kept the Revolutionary Guard as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, but also it started to purge the staff, those who had been loyal not only to people like Montazeri or people who had been disgraced at that time, but also those who had been too loyal to Khomeini. That generation was seen by him as a potential threat. So everyone whose importance, whose authority, whose credential did not depend on Khamenei could be a source of threat. So if you want to say ‘I am better’ in the Islamic Republic, it means that you will not listen to me.

So he started to bring up his own generation of military and Revolutionary Guard. The oldest commanders that you see, including Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated about two months ago, is a child of Khamenei. This is a very important figure in Khamenei’s generation of Revolutionary Guard. He needed to facilitate this generational transformation in the military and not only in the Revolutionary Guard, but also in the regular army, in police, in Basij, and so on.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps under Khamenei

But with regard to the Revolutionary Guard, there is a difference between the Revolutionary Guard and the regular army. The regular army is in charge of protecting the country against a foreign enemy, but the Revolutionary Guard is the guard of the revolution. So the guardians of the revolution think that they have the responsibility and the legitimacy to protect the revolution by all means: through financial mechanisms, through security measures, through everything.

If they needed to do something to protect the Islamic Revolution, they have to do it, so Khamenei started to convert the Revolutionary Guard from a military body to a multidimensional complex. It is a financial, political, cultural, military, security, intelligence complex, and not only involved in domestic affairs, it is also involved in foreign affairs. The Quds Force, whose chief Qassem Soleimani was killed two months ago, is a branch of the Revolutionary Guard in charge of operating outside of the country.

This kind of transformation of the military, by refashioning the Revolutionary Guard, Khamenei became important. He made his power base mostly in the Revolutionary Guard, and because the Revolutionary Guard started to get involved in the economy, now at least one-third of the country’s economy is run by the Revolutionary Guard. They are involved in any sort of financial activity from movie production to sports clubs to newspapers, everything you can imagine, including drug trafficking, smuggling all kinds of goods. According to the official statements of the government, the country has seven important ports through which import-export is taking place, and four of them are under the exclusive control of the Revolutionary Guard.

Nobody knows what they are doing. The Revolutionary Guard is making huge money. They are intervening in elections, they are appointing the members of Parliament, they are appointing members of the Assembly of Experts, they are meddling with all kinds of experts in all stages of the electoral process. They became a huge mafia in the country, and they have a major word in foreign policy when it comes to the nuclear program or the original policy in Syria, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and so on.

Khamenei’s Economic and Media Empire

On the other hand, Khamenei has developed the intelligence apparatus of the country, and also let the intelligence apparatus get involved in economic activities, and become totally autonomous in terms of financial resources. What is interesting is that Khamenei has his own economic empire. He has gradually built this up from the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, which is one of the largest economic enterprises in the whole Middle East. This enterprise is not accountable before any government bureau, does not pay taxes, and is totally independent, and makes itself accountable only before the Supreme Leader.

According to the Constitution, he has the unique position supervising the state television and radio, which is a monopoly in the hands of government. We do not have private television or private radio in Iran. [Khamenei supervises] the military or armed forces, intelligence apparatus, the propaganda machinery, and the fourth one is the judiciary. The chief of the judiciary is appointed directly by the Supreme Leader, and the whole judiciary is under him, and neither the President nor the Parliament has a say in it. These are the minimum tools or mechanisms in the hands of Khamenei, which have helped him to gradually build up his power.

Khamenei’s Control of the State

Gradually, he became able to successfully weaken democratic institutions and also condition all elections in Iran. We have four elections in Iran; parliamentary elections, presidential election, election for the Assembly of Experts, and municipal elections, so all of these elections are taking place mainly through the Guardian Council, the members of which, the six important members of this Council, are appointed by Khamenei, so Khamenei is now controlling the elections. He is weakening the president and parliament, intervening in decisions made by the parliament easily, publicly, and openly.

And also, the president you expect to have freedom of choosing his ministers, but there are seven or eight key ministers of the cabinet who are appointed by Khamenei indirectly. The president goes to Khamenei and gives the list and he chooses them, who is the Minister of Defense, this is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, this is the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, this is the Minister of Interior, and so on. Important ministers are appointed by Khamenei, and the President does not have even full authority over the executive branch of the government.

Factional Politics

Khamenei after now 31 years, he is 81 now, he began to convert this sort of authoritarian regime that we had in Iran after the revolution. After the revolution, what we had (especially in the second decade of the Islamic Republic) was an authoritarian regime which was somehow decentralized. You had two big factions. They could compete against each other, especially in the elections. You had hardliners versus more hardliners, so-called ‘reformists’ and moderates, and conservatives. But this is over. This is over.

What happened especially in the last election was that it does not matter if you are a hardliner or reformist or moderate, it does not matter anymore. Even if you are a conservative, but you fake to prove your loyalty to Khamenei as a person, you are out. So this time the Guardian Council disqualified some conservatives who failed to obey Khamenei in all his orders.

So, for example, you had Ali Motahhari, a representative of Tehran, in the current Majlis – the new Majlis has not started yet – he is an important person. His father was Ayatollah Motahhari, one of the most important ideologues of the Islamic Republic, who was assassinated in early 1979 by the Furqan Group, one of the anti-regime groups. His sister is the wife of Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Majlis. These people come from very important families of the Islamic Republic, but the guy was disqualified because in two or three cases he was told by the Guardian Council that he had disagreed with Khamenei, so he was not qualified to run in the election anymore.

So this time the competition was not between conservatives versus moderates, this time it was between those who have proven that they are faithful to Khamenei blindly. This time we are going to have a very monolithic parliament, and the common trait of parliament is that they are totally loyal to Khamenei. They do not think and they do not act because Khamenei is thinking for them.

Khamenei’s Leadership

Khamenei has gradually developed this cult of personality, which is very interesting and dangerous. You know that I am writing Khamenei’s biography. I am one of the few people in Washington, D.C. who wakes up every morning and prays to God to keep Khamenei alive until I finish the biography. One American journalist told me, “Please finish your book before he dies or you die,” so I am trying to finish it, it is not easy, but it is interesting that he has created a large apparatus for just promoting the guy as a person.

First of all, if you asked me what is the most characteristic feature of Khamenei’s leadership, I would say that he is a man of institutions. No one has created such a large number of institutions in the Islamic Republic as Khamenei. Why is that? Because he is rich. He is rich.

He needs to divide power. He needs to prevent any center of power from becoming dominant, so for everything you can imagine, for a tomato, for meat, for milk, for everything agricultural, for culture, for everything you imagine, there are several institutions, parallel institutions doing the same job and they are not interconnected. They do not report to each other. They do not cooperate with each other. They are only accountable before the Supreme Leader. This way Khamenei divides the power in all fields, keeping everyone weak because he is weak. He needs to keep everyone [divided].

So if, for example, you have one Minister of Intelligence, it becomes a problem. That is why Khamenei hates presidents, no matter their ideologies, no matter their agendas, no matter their personalities. He hates presidents, why? Because his (the President) legitimacy comes from the people, not from him (the Supreme Leader), and he can become important. That is why he makes sure that no matter who the president is and what his agenda is, he would be weakened in the second year of his presidency. Presidents come to power with millions of votes and in their second year, not their second term, their second year, they are totally crippled, unable to make decisions on very small things. And this appears to be the case now more than at any previous time.

Khamenei’s Ideology

Let me just say a few words about Khamenei’s ideology. Then we move to the problem of succession. What is important to know is that Khamenei as I said was not an important person. He was not a thinker, he was not a professor, he was not a writer, he was a preacher and he was a political activist before the Revolution. He went to prison several times, but he was not among the top officials.

And when he was the President of the country, at that time the President had no authority. Most executive authority was in the hands of the Prime Minister. At that time, Iran had a Prime Minister, but when he became Supreme Leader, the Constitution was amended and the whole authority was concentrated in the hands of the President. We do not have a Prime Minister anymore.

One of the symptoms of this growing cult of personality is that Khamenei is not satisfied with being only the Supreme Leader of the country, he wants to portray himself as the ideologue of the regime. So if you look at the propaganda machinery, they are always trying to produce this image of him that he is the best expert on almost everything. So he has the best view on culture, he has the best view on the economy, he has the best view on foreign policy, so he is becoming a typical dictator, like Stalin. You know Stalin wrote a book and had some saying about medical issues and things like that. This is what is happening with Khamenei. He has odd opinions on many different things upon which he has no knowledge.

But as a good disciple of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and a great fan of Sayyid Qutb, he translated a few books of Sayyid Qutb into Farsi before the Revolution, so he knows the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology very well. He is greatly affected by Abul A’la Maududi, the spiritual father of Islamism in Pakistan. And he borrowed the main notions of his world view from either Sayyid Qutb or Abul A’la Maududi.

Jihad

One of the most important notions in his worldview is the notion of jihad. Jihad in Islamic tradition means either fighting with moral vices, fighting with the devil inside you, or fighting with infidels and enemies outside. But in Islamic ideology, there is a metamorphosis in this concept. Jihad is not only fighting with infidels, it can cover almost everything. So if you look at Khamenei’s vocabulary, he uses jihad for almost everything, talking about economic jihad, cultural jihad, managerial jihad, political jihad. Everything should be defined under the category of jihad, which means that everything – this shows how totalitarian his ideology is – everything should be in the service of the Islamic Republic, everything, everything.

This has somehow devolved Islam from having any meaning, so it does not matter what the content is of Islam, as long as it serves the interest of the regime, it is good, otherwise, we have the religious authority to disregard that. This is what Groucho Marx said once, that “these are my principles. If you do not like them, I have others.” This is really true with the Islamic Republic and his worldview.

Khomeini’s Maslehat

There is no principle, no principle because they admit that first, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he claimed that he wanted to implement Sharia law. Since implementation of Sharia law is necessary, the best person that can implement it is the expert on Sharia, who is the Ayatollah. So I, Khomeini, have the legitimacy to take over executive power, judiciary power, and legislative power because we have the best law, which is Sharia, and I am the best expert on Sharia.

But when he came to power, he realized that you cannot run the country by Sharia. Excuse me, in Sharia, music is forbidden. How can you have radio and television without music? In Sharia, women cannot appear on television, it is forbidden to look at the picture of a woman who is not your close relative. So how can you run the country without cinema, without television, without a banking system, without all of these things?

After he came to power, he developed another theory, which is called the maslehat or the raison d’etre, the interest of the expediency of the regime. He said that, ‘You know what, the highest value in Islam is the protection of Islamic government. The protection of Islamic government is so important that you can disregard other values in order to protect it’.

This is what Khomeini said explicitly in his speech, that if protecting the Islamic government requires you to tell lies or to drink wine, you should do it. You should do it, not you may do it, no, you should do it. So it is a religious duty to drink wine, which is forbidden in Islam and tell lies if it is necessary to keep the system running. And it has been institutionalized, so we have the Expediency Council.

The Expediency Council

What is the Expediency Council? The Constitution says that the Parliament cannot pass any law which is in conflict with Islamic law, but if necessary, it goes to the Expediency Council. The Expediency Council can say despite the fact that it is against Islamic law, despite the fact that this is against Sharia or against the Constitution, it is legal. So we have a system in Iran which can legalize the illegal, and it is part of the system. This is how Ayatollah Khamenei runs the country.

Dependence on One Leader

This growing cult of personality along with his systematic efforts to weaken democratic institutions, not only democratic institutions, but any center of power independent from him, made everything dependent on Khamenei. If you remember during the Shah’s period, the Shah was a military man, he had military training. He loved military power, he developed Iran’s military, and he made the Iranian Army the most advanced and well-equipped military in the Middle East.

But when he left Iran a few months before the Revolution, this powerful military in Iran was totally unable to make decisions about what to do with regard to the Revolution that was happening on the streets of Tehran and other cities. It was totally crippled.

Why was that? Because the Shah did not let generals make any decision independently. Everyone was dependent on him. Without the Shah, no one was able to think in the Army. So that is why that powerful army did not help the government and did not prevent it from collapse.

We have a similar situation now, which is everyone in the country, every institution, every center of power is somehow dependent on Khamenei. And we know that the Revolutionary Guard as an example is a large organization with something like I think 400,000 staff, and that is just staff. They have lots of hospitals, factories, organizations, and so on, and millions of people are working with them.

We know that it is quite factional. There are several factions, big factions within the Revolutionary Guard. They have different views about major issues, including foreign policy and domestic policy. And they have different levels of loyalty to the Supreme Leader. They have different levels of commitment to the Islamic ideology. They have different kinds of economic interests, and so on.

So far Khamenei has been able to manage this conflict by dividing them, by rotating them, by creating different institutions. So far by making everyone weak, he has been able to maintain his power. If he dies, that is going to be a big crisis because either this group will be unable to make any decisions or they start to fight against each other.

Succession

There is no one who can control them because no one was left to have independent power whose power and authority is recognized by different factions. So we had Rafsanjani. He died in a very suspicious way. There are many people who believe he was killed by Khamenei. The last person who could have played a mediation role after Khamenei was Qassem Soleimani.

Qassem Soleimani was an interesting person because despite his prestige, his power in the Revolutionary Guard, he was quite unique in his disinterest in getting involved in domestic politics or taking sides in factional fights. So all factions of the Islamic Republic’s elite respected him and they looked high at him. This guy could have played the role of mediator when Khamenei dies, to help different factions to sit together and make some sort of concessions about the succession, but the demise of Soleimani, the last candidate for this job, has made this process look even more difficult to take place.

After Khamenei

Who is going to be the next Supreme Leader? Actually, it does not matter because Khamenei makes his power personal, not institutional. Khamenei is very powerful, but his power would not transmit to his successor automatically. His power dies with him, so after Khamenei we enter a totally new era and we are facing a new political map in Iran.

I think those who have gone and the key of prison, they would run the country after Khamenei. They may need to appoint someone, but this time an old, ailing Ayatollah because Khamenei when he became Supreme Leader, he was fifty years old. He was young enough to build up his empire. This time they would appoint a very old Ayatollah who would not have that much energy and time to build an independent empire like Khamenei, just as a face and make this institution of Supreme Leader totally ceremonial, and they take over the country.

So the country is going towards even more harsh and brutal militarization. One of the consequences of this kind of transformation would be that since the Revolutionary Guard needs to justify its new position, they need to prove to people that security is the most important issue for Iranian people, and the Revolutionary Guard is the unique entity that can provide the security.

So making trouble inside the country and making some minor crisis in the region, which could be quite manageable for the Revolutionary Guard, would seem necessary to prove that look, we are protecting the country, we are protecting the borders, we are here to let you live in peace, and without us, no one, none of the political groups, not clergy or any other group can serve you as we do. So we are going toward a darker time in the Islamic Republic. With this happy note, I end here.

Q&A

Audience member:

I believe that the current Constitution of Iran probably started in 1979, and the Shah had a different one, but I was wondering about a post-Mullah Iran is there anyone preparing a constitution? And I am wondering about the role of Islam in the Constitution, whether they remove the role of Islam in the Constitution, and had something similar to the U.S. First Amendment, I think that could contribute a lot to peace in that region as well as governance of countries. Is anybody trying to do that?

Mehdi Khalaji:

That is the most optimistic scenario one can imagine. Considering the similar experiences in other countries, the experience of authoritarianism like the former communist countries, it is very difficult to imagine that even the change of regime would lead to a fundamental change in the system. It is very difficult to imagine that because those who have power, those who have real power, they would continue to hold on to power.

It is not easy to take the weapon from the Revolutionary Guard or take the key of prison from the Judiciary and Intelligence service, it is not easy, and because the civil society is so weak and constantly under pressure and systematic oppression, no one has the power to change the foundation of the politics in Iran. So in the foreseeable future, I do not see any possibility of the collapse of the regime by any revolution or public protest. The regime may transform through conflicts and the transition of power at the elite level on the top, but the hardcore of the regime would remain the same.

And with regard to the Constitution, I think they prefer the authoritarianism in Iran or anywhere else. Like Russia, they need to make an alliance with the religious institutions. I do not think that as it happens in Russia under Mr. Putin, the alliance with the religious institutions would be helpful for the military, for the intelligence services. I do not think that they start to secularize the Constitution in a very obvious way, it is very unlikely. Sorry, I am very pessimistic about the future. I am hopeful, but pessimistic.

Audience member:

I have a question for you regarding the current influence, potential surrogacy of both Russia and China within Iran, and a follow-up question on the potential for a dramatic, almost revolutionary reaching out to the United States to form a new alliance for the economic prosperity and growth of Iran within the region, so China, Russia, and the United States.

Mehdi Khalaji:

With regard to China and Russia, this is very interesting because Iran has a very strong financial relationship with Russia and China, but especially with Russia, it is beyond financial ties, it even looks ideological because despite the fact that Mr. Putin is a ‘Christian’, he is not Muslim. If he is not an atheist and a communist, he is a Christian.

There is no religious similarity between Iranian leaders and Russian leaders, but there is lots of ideological similarity, the way they look at the world, the way they look at the United States is almost the same. If you look at the remarks of those who give advice to Mr. Putin, people who are close to him, the ideologues of today’s Russia, it is very, very similar to what you hear from the Islamic Republic’s propaganda, from the mouth of Ayatollah Khamenei.

It is interesting that in 2005, Mr. Putin for the first time came to Iran and went to Khamenei’s house and met him. Russians have harmed the country a lot. Russians intervened in Iranian politics at least for the last two hundred years in a very devastating way. We had Russian soldiers invading Iran on several occasions, including Mashhad, which is the hometown of the Supreme Leader, and the Dome of Goharshad Mosque, which is the most important mosque in Mashhad after the Shrine of Imam Reza, was targeted by Russian tanks and they destroyed that. So even the generation of Khamenei can remember what Russians have done to the country.

But in 2005 in his meeting with Mr. Putin, Khamenei told him that Iranian people have no bad memory of Russia at all, so they are trying to make Russia an ideological ally against the United States and against the West. It is very difficult at least under Khamenei that there would be any attempt to normalize the relationship with the United States. Khamenei’s ideal is to maintain a relationship with the United States, that can neither be seen as peace nor as a war, so no peace, no war. We are enemies, but we can have a limited level of relationship, like Russia, that is a kind of relationship.

What happens after Khamenei, I do not know. If those who come to power think that establishing a new relationship with the United States would help them to maintain their power at home, they would do it. Otherwise, no, they continue the same policy. But I think in the case of Iran, that is not true about many other countries, but in the case of Iran, one may venture to say that if one day you see that the Iran-U.S. relationship has been normalized, you have to conclude that we have a fundamental political transformation in Iran. That is the biggest sign because normalization of relations with the United States would not take place without neutralization of the relationship with Israel, and neutralizing relations with Israel would mean that the Islamic ideology totally disappeared from Iran.

Audience member:

Thank you very much for your presentation. My question is can you share some insight about why there are Chinese government personnel or people aligned with economics who are studying the Shia religion or ideology because obviously technically the People’s Republic of China Communist Party by their official doctrine is an atheist state?

Mehdi Khalaji:

In China, there is a large Muslim community, one of the oldest Muslim communities outside what is called the Muslim countries. What Iran has been doing was to proselytize Shiism among the Muslim communities worldwide, so you see Iranian missionary efforts in Africa, in the United States since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, systematic efforts convert the Sunni Muslims to Shiism, and there were lots of successes in this regard. So they are doing the same thing in Africa, in Europe, in the United States, and Asia.

I would recommend you go online and look for Al Mustapha University in Qom. Al Mustapha University is a seminary specialized for foreign nationalities, so according to the website, they have over 18,000 students from something like seventy or eighty countries, so we have American students, European students, and Asian students in the seminary. So we have lots of Japanese mullahs.

When they come to Qom, they say theological training, but it is ideological training. It is not that theological. So it is ideological training, and when they go back to their country after seven or eight years, first of all, they learn Farsi, then Arabic, then they go back to their homeland, and they create a Shia Center. They proselytize Shiism, invite people to Shiism, but not Shiism as Shiism, a special kind of Shiism, which is to follow Ayatollah Khamenei as the religious authority. They are promoting not only the Islamic Republic, but specifically Ayatollah Khamenei as the religious authority.

So yes, we have thousands of foreign students in Qom, thousands of foreign students in Mashhad. When I say foreign, I do not mean Iraqis or Lebanese or Afghans, Pakistanis; they are like us. When I say foreign, I mean from countries like China, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, France, Britain, Africa. In most African countries, there are lots of Shia Centers, Shia imams, they hold the Friday Prayer, and so on. This is how Iran expands its soft power through religion worldwide.

Audience member:

Do students have to pay?

Mehdi Khalaji:

No, they pay students. They are paid. Students are paid. You are paid, the family is paid, and they get lots of financial benefits for the rest of their lives. So when you go to your country, you get paid to establish a religious center. They became like a government employee.

Audience member:

Thank you very much for a stimulating talk. I read today – as recently as today – that we do not really have a succession problem quite yet because Ayatollah Khamenei’s father lived to be 105 years old. Is there any truth to that report that I say in the press today?

Mehdi Khalaji:

I hope so as I said. Look, when it comes to the health condition of Iranian rulers, we have to bear in mind that it is one of the most secret things in the country. The Shah was recognized to have cancer in 1974, but he did not know that he had cancer until he came to the United States in 1979. This was even kept secret from him. Six months before the Revolution, his wife did not know what his sickness was, so we do not know. For example, in the case of Khomeini, Khomeini had a heart attack three years before he died, but no one knew that, and the news was revealed only a few years ago, so we do not know Khamenei’s health condition.

But what I can tell you is that he is quite active. Apparently, he sleeps only five hours per 24 hours. He intervenes in every detail of the country. He micromanages the government. He runs huge institutions. He reads a lot. He still reads novels and poetry. He speaks a lot. He appoints not just high-ranking officials in the Army but also middle-ranking officials. He knows the name of the children of Army official’s families, so this guy looks fine.

Audience member:

My question has to do with the death of Soleimani. There is a move in the press, we see it all of the time, to canonize Soleimani and to emphasize his importance – his hypothetical importance now – in the succession either as President himself as a candidate or as a behind-the-scenes operative. How would you interpret his death and the hypothetical impact it may have had, going forward had he lived? Was he important to the Supreme Leader’s thinking and emotional life even (as we are taught)?

Mehdi Khalaji:

Yes, he was. As I said he was a unique person and a priceless soldier to Khamenei because first of all, he had no interest in politics. He had no interest in the economy unlike many other Commanders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps involved in economic activities. He was living a very modest life, very modest life. He is the one who served as the chief of the Quds Force more than anyone else, longer than anyone else.

As I said, Khamenei does not risk trusting anyone, so no one can be totally seen as trustworthy by him, but probably, Soleimani was an exception. Soleimani was an exception and his loss was too great for Khamenei. And as I said, he was probably the only one who could play the role of mediator after Khamenei’s death.

Soleimani was a personality who was respected by all factions, all figures of the Islamic Republic. So, for example, the moderates were rushing to take pictures of him. The hardliners were trying to put their names next to his. Everyone was trying to get close to him and he was very cautious not to take any sides.

He could have been seen as an effective mediator after Khamenei. His loss is a big loss for not only Khamenei, but also for the Islamic Republic. He could have prevented lots of devastating conflicts between different factions in the Islamic Republic. And in his absence, the regime becomes more fragile. I think this is probably one of the unintended consequences of his assassination. Maybe those who planned for this did not think about this, but in a way, the future of the Islamic Republic have put more at risk with the demise of Mr. Soleimani. Thank you very much.

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