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The Fight for Iran's Political Future: Revolution Leaders Struggle for Power in Tehran

By and Erich Follath

Part 3: Filling Khomeini's Shoes

Tehran, June 4, 1989, the day after Khomeini's death.

The country's leading dignitaries met to appoint his successor. As film footage that has recently surfaced demonstrates, Rafsanjani took the lead in a meeting of the Assembly of Experts -- and set the course. He described his last encounter with Khomeini in the hospital, as well as an earlier discussion he had had with Khomeini over his succession. Rafsanjani claimed that he had told Khomeini that no one had "the stature to fill your shoes," to which Khomeini had replied: "But why not? Mr. Khamenei is the one!"

Thus anointed, Khamenei humbly addressed the assembled clerics and, in a typical Iranian gesture of feigned modesty, told them that it was far too great an honor. "I am opposed," he said to the Assembly. Rafsanjani requested an open vote among the religious scholars, saying that those in favor of Khamenei should stand up. By acclamation, Khamenei was thus voted Khomeini's successor, even though he lacked the basic qualification for the country's supreme religious office, the rank of ayatollah, which could only be acquired by someone with an established record of acclaimed publications.

Later, when Montazeri publicly drew attention to this deficit on Khamenei's part, Khamenei had him placed under house arrest and got hired thugs to destroy his library. But he stopped short of having the marja imprisoned or, worse yet, murdered.

Khamenei and Rafsanjani had assumed the legacy of the nation's founder. Montazeri once said that the two men were as similar as identical twins and were capable of anything. Nevertheless, the duo's joint rise to power also contained the seeds of a power struggle -- perhaps because they had never agreed on what their respective roles would be, or perhaps because they were too much alike. Khamenei was the formal supreme leader, but Rafsanjani had reason to believe that in reality he was actually number one. Through a constitutional amendment Rafsanjani managed to push through in a behind-the-scenes campaign, the office of the prime minister was abolished and the last man to hold it, Mir Hossein Mousavi, withdrew from politics (until he became the hero of the opposition in 2009). It was only under these conditions that Rafsanjani agreed to run for the upgraded office of president, to which he was easily elected.

But Khamenei had also taken steps to reinforce his troops, in the literal sense of the word. He assumed control of the Revolutionary Guards Khomeini had founded as a counterforce to the regular army, which had been influenced by the shah and was suspected of disloyalty. Khamenei expanded the role of the Revolutionary Guards, turning them into a quasi state within a state. By that time, revolutionary leader Khamenei and President Rafsanjani had become as dependent on each other as they were rivals. They attempted to balance out power among the various political camps. Khamenei cast his lot with the conservatives, who insisted on strict adherence to dress codes and the moral "cleanliness" of the press. He sought to appease the religious conservatives, sensing that, because of his lack of religious qualifications, they posed the greatest threat to his authority.

Rafsanjani advocated greater personal freedoms, but he was not prepared to truly fight for them. His only concern was to retain his hold on power. He did manage to achieve cautious privatization in an economy crippled by nationalization programs. In terms of foreign policy, Rafsanjani, who had traveled in the United States in the days of the shah regime and whose business dealings required a certain level of cosmopolitanism, argued for a cautious course of rapprochement with the West, provided Iran was treated as an "equal partner" -- he might have been a revolutionary, but he was pragmatic. But after Rafsanjani was reelected in 1993, Iranians became increasingly disenchanted with his policies. The West, for its part, was divided over how to handle an Iranian government that was almost simultaneously sending gestures of goodwill toward Washington while dispatching assassins to murder Iranian dissidents around the world.

By the time of the 1997 election, Khamenei and Rafsanjani realized that they no longer had the support of the people. Mohammed Khatami, a reformer, clearly defeated the candidate favored by the ruling duo. But at least the outcome, as odious as it was to the religious leaders, was not rendered invalid by a bogus election result. Khatami's predecessor and, most of all, the religious leaders, did their utmost to obstruct him. Washington also abandoned Khatami, even though he publicly expressed "regret" for the 1979 embassy occupation, offered an intercultural dialogue and helped the United States, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to find al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Despite these overtures, then US President George W. Bush counted Iran as part of his "axis of evil."

Rafsanjani suddenly found himself caught between fronts. The liberals were deeply disappointed when he did nothing against the increasingly brutal repression of opposition members by an intelligence service loyal to Khamenei. Meanwhile, the religious leader tolerated conservatives publicly criticizing Rafsanjani for being "corrupt" and maligning him as a "fat cat." In fact, he even quietly instigated the mudslinging campaign.

Harder than Stalin

But Rafsanjani was not about to give up. He ran for president again in 2005, only to experience the ultimate betrayal by his former comrade-in-arms. "If necessary, Khamenei can even make Stalin look soft," says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer and expert on Iran. The religious leader conjured up a rival candidate -- Ahmadinejad -- and made it clear that he believed him to be more qualified than his ally of many years.

Once again, everyone had underestimated Khamenei, a man who comes across as extraordinarily bland and dull. Nevertheless, the religious leader, who never meets with foreign journalists or Western statesmen, made an impression on the then-head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed ElBaradei, during his visits to Tehran. "He is highly intelligent and is familiar with every detail of the nuclear weapons issue," ElBaradei said.

At the same time, Khamenei remained ideologically inflexible and deeply suspicious of the West's intentions. For Khamenei, any compromise was nothing but surrender. The image of America as the enemy remained his guiding principle, the glue holding the regime together.

He kept a close eye on his rival Rafsanjani, who had lost the 2005 election to Ahmadinejad. He knew that Rafsanjani would never acknowledge defeat, and that he would attempt to settle scores with Khamenei. He sensed that the shark had his own plans.

After his first inauguration, Ahmadinejad loyally kissed the hand of his "father," Khamenei. He was the first president in Iranian history to do so. And the hardliner regime he ran was also much to the taste of the religious leader: anti-Western in its foreign policy and anti-liberal domestically.

Rafsanjani was opposed to such extremist positions, but he kept a low profile. And when Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier, ran for reelection and Khamenei indicated a preference for the incumbent, Rafsanjani did not openly endorse the most promising challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. This was despite Rafsanjani and Mousavi's shared history: Mousavi, the former prime minister, was the last member of the expanded Revolutionary Council Rafsanjani had appointed more than 30 years earlier -- Rafsanjani's 12th "apostle."

Mousavi is also a pillar of the Islamic Republic, a representative of the establishment and, until shortly before the election, an overly cautious and bland candidate. Nevertheless, he is a man who, as he has recently demonstrated, can rise to the occasion at key moments. When Ahmadinejad insulted Mousavi and his wife with a defamatory comment in a television debate, the challenger shot back with an astonishing remark, one that electrified previously apathetic voters: "You are leading our country toward dictatorship!"

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Photo Gallery: The Holy Man and the Shark
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Photo Gallery: The Holy Man and the Shark

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Photo Gallery: The Holy Man and the Shark

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