Why did Khamenei turn to Banisadr?


ByReza Haghighatnejad

In Iranian politics, names signify events. When we talk of Saeed Emami, we are talking about chain killings; when we mention Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, we are reminded of 2009 election fraud; “Mir-Hossein Mousavi” brings the house arrest to our minds; “Hossein-Ali Montazeri” revives the memory of 1988 massacre, and mentioning Abolhassan Banisadr implies political dismissal. Just like last night when Ayatollah Khamenei, in a public meeting and in the presence of Hassan Rouhani, pointed out to Rouhani’s remarks about national cohesion, saying: “People should not be divided into two groups, just as in 1980 when the then president [Abolhassan Banisadr] divided the people into two opposing groups. That is dangerous.”
So far, in Iranian politics, we have had a lot of predictions or wishes for [this or that president] to “become like Banisadr”, but none of them has exactly become like Banisadr. They might have been marginalized or become the opposition. But, Khamenei, in his era, has not had the charisma or decision-making power to make any president act like Banisadr.
Nevertheless, Khamenei’s mentioning of Banisadr’s situation– which is tantamount to threatening to dismiss or predicting a certain political future for a politician – is meaningful, because a few days before this reference, Khamenei had asked the officers of soft war, who are considered as his loyal supporters, to “fire at will” when they witness any disruption in the central system of culture and politics. Comparing the current condition with 1980 makes Rouhani’s government an easier and more accessible target. This basis somehow shows the political future of Hassan Rouhani – the future which Khamenei wants to create for him: in the margin, a suspect, or perhaps a criminal. In fact, the leader, rather than threatening, is preparing the proper foundation for the long run. This foundation overlaps very well with the idea of “being revolutionary” as well.
The idea of “being revolutionary” is an extensive umbrella which can bring together many principlist groups, as well as help with preserving the “domestic political hostility”. Keeping the revolutionary, emotional atmosphere is a proper antidote for compensating defeats in elections, and preventing more collapse and losing forces within the principlists. The revolutionary and emotional atmosphere also helps in following up the mechanism of solving the problem not within the structure or political high levels, but in the public sphere and with pressure from the media and radical bodies supporting Khamenei. Also, the other side won’t be allowed to think that political power comes from the “ballot box”, but will remember that the political power is in the Leader’s hands.
“Fire-at-will” and “acting like Banisadr” are useful components for such an atmosphere. In the past decade, Ayatollah Khamenei, more than being the Leader of Islamic Republic, has been the true leader of a certain group in the Islamic Republic. So, he and his followers mutually need such games. His supporters severely failed in 2017 election, and Khamenei’s records in crisis management show that whenever he fails, he makes the disputes public. Therefore, they [Khamenei and his supporters] are currently encouraging each other and strengthening their own morale. More labels and slogans are on the way.
In the short run, this approach is extensive, but not deep. Khamenei’s most important approach during the first term of Rouhani’s government was also based on controlling and managing the president. In the beginning of the first term of Rouhani’s government, the tone was soft and attacks were limited. With the advance in negotiation and especially after success in JCPOA and improvement in Rouhani’s social and political standing, the president’s language became stronger and there were more confrontations on Khamenei’s behalf. Naturally, 24 million votes in 2017 election will make –and has made – Rouhani’s position and language stronger, and there is obviously a kind of political disobedience and willingness to confrontation in Rouhani’s behavior. And now Khamenei is trying to control this condition. In 2009, Hashemi Rafsanjani’s advice to Khamenei about Ahmadinejad was: “A stitch in time saves nine,” but he is using it about Rouhani.

Reza Haghighatnejad
Reza Haghighatnejad
Political analyst