Will Ayatollah Khamenei celebrate his 70th birthday?

Why is he the Supreme Leader of Iran? Ayatollah Khamenei was born on July 17th, 1939 (according to his Office).

Questions:

1. Why in your opinion he was chosen as Supreme Leader of Iran after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and did somebody really challenge his leadership during the years of his rule?

2. Where do you see limits of his position? For example if he would say let’s have in Iran the western style democracy what could happen?

3. Do you think he will celebrate his birthday?

Answers:

Iraj Bashiri, Professor, Department of History, University of Minnesota

1. Choosing a supreme leader in Iran is very much like choosing a Pope. The future Supreme Leader is nominated by the current leader and is chosen by a committee of experts that reviews his credentials. The candidate must be a cleric. He must have extensive Knowledge of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s traditions, and the teachings of the Twelve Imams. He should have shown the ability to apply reason in updating current laws and in the issuance of fatwas, etc. At the time of his appointment, Khamenei satisfied all those requirements.

Regarding the second part of your question, not until very recently. Ayatollah Khamenei was and, for the majority of Iranians, continues to be a most respected faqih and leader. His recent decisions, especially two, have been troubling. They provide grounds for questioning his wisdom in the rulership of a 21st century people with 7th century dicta. The first has to do with his approval of the election results in favor of President Ahmadinejad before a thorough account of the votes was available. The second was his attempt at upholding what he had said at all cost. Of course, if he had not made the initial mistake, he would have spared himself the embarrassment of having to make a most unpopular and undemocratic pronouncement.

2. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the requirements of the office of the Supreme Leader, the dictates of the Islamic Shari’a law, and the socio-political stance of Iran in the world today are the limits of his authority. The dynamics mentioned require Iran to remain within the Shi’a Shari’a and against bid’a or innovation. Additionally, thirty years ago, Iran placed its policy on a neither the East nor the West trajectory. Allowing Iran a western style democracy today would negate everything that the Islamic Republic stands for. It would create a confrontation between the silent majority in Iran and the formidable basij against Khamenei, as opposed to the opposition that exists today in Iran against the west and the progressives both within and outside Iran. Additionally, Iran would not be able to continue its nuclear program, whatever the nature of that program might be.

3. I don’t think he will have a birthday in the Western sense of cakes and candles. But surely his family will celebrate his birthday as will the nation.

Jamsheed Choksy, Professor of Iranian Studies in Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University

Khamenei was politically active, more than theologically erudite, and so became as an important figure in the 1979 Islamic revolution. He had studied and become close to ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of that revolution. In the nascent Islamic government, he served as deputy minister of defense and as an overseer of the IRGC. Next, with Khomeini’s endorsement, he served two terms as Iran’s president.

Because Khamenei was not appropriately qualified and is an extremist, he was not the foremost candidate to replace the deceased Khomeini as supreme leader in 1989. Yet Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was far more qualified theologically and is a social moderate, had already fallen out of official grace. Then, Grand Ayatollah Golpaygani failed to gain the necessary votes in the first round of balloting among the clerics of the Assembly of Experts. Only then did support of the ruling theocracy coalesced around Khamenei.

Nonetheless, Khamenei’s elevation to supreme leader was challenged by Grand Ayatollah Shirazi and other learned ayatollahs because the new supreme leader had not earned the rank of ayatollah, was not a marja or person to be emulated, and was believed to lack the ability to guide Iran wisely. Khamenei proved to be a shrewd politician, isolating his political opponents, sidelining those mullahs who believe that clerics should have an advisory rather than direct role in politics, and increasing the powers of the position of supreme leader. He carefully nurtured links with the militant IRGC as well to ensure that opposition to his rule could be combated violently.

Hubris and overconfidence now have placed Khamenei on the brink of the political abyss. Khamenei’s incautious and hasty confirmation of Ahmadinejad as re-elected to Iran’s presidency finally have galvanized a broad-based coalition of clerics, secular politicians, entrepreneurs, women, students, and much of the middle and upper classes of Iran’s society. Khamenei has lost support as well among the rural poor because his supporters, including Ahmadinejad, have mismanaged Iran’s economy. Khamenei’s recent actions demonstrate that he represents an oligarchic theocracy hostile to plurality, democracy, moderation, and fundamental rights—further alienating Iran’s citizens from him and other hardliners.

Khamenei should not celebrate his 70th birthday because his actions have brought repression, pain, and suffering to Iranians. Rather, the Iranian people should continue to lament and protest his leadership publically. The clerical opposition that has coalesced around Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Karroubi must work with the Assembly of Experts, which is headed by Rafsanjani himself, to remove Khamenei from office and to abolish that position. The Iranian majles or parliament needs to officially reject the outcome of the presidential election. Iran must have free and fair elections whose outcome represents fully, freely, and fairly the will and aspirations of Iranian citizens.

James Goode, Professor of History, Grand Valley State University

1. He was the replacement for Ayatollah Montazeri, who seemed too independent in his thinking. Khamenei was more likely to follow Khomaini’s line of thinking. He has had challenges–perhaps not direct ones, however.

2. There are several centers of power in the current Iranian system. He is but one of those, although arguably the most important. I doubt he can accomplish much by fiat; he needs to bring at least some of the other members of the leadership along with him: the security forces, the president, parliament, other leading ayatollahs and their supporters.

3. Birthdays are generally not as important in Iran as in the West, especially among the religiously inclined–too much focus on the individual. I imagine his birthday will be a low-key affair.

Mark Sedgwick, Associate Professor Coordinator, Unit for Arab and Islamic Studies, Department of the Study of Religion, University of Aarhus

Ha was chosen as Supreme Leader because of his existing position close to those who were close to Khomeini.

Now he is supported by, and represents, particular forces—a certain “establishment.” And that limits him—as well as his own inclinations and views, of course. I doubt he has the power to do a Gorbachev… That would require a new man.

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