March 28, 2019
Iranians ushered in a new year March 21, according to the Persian calendar. Looking back, the past year has been rife with economic crisis and public unrest leading to protests questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. Where do the country’s key figures stand now, and what can we expect from them in the coming year?
SUPREME LEADER AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI
Khamenei started the new year by adding yet another enemy to his list: Europe. Thirty years after taking office as the Islamic Republic’s Supremem leader, he is still preoccupied with the idea of enemies constantly conspiring against him. He also talks about “infiltrators,” or enemies within.
In this Iranian year of 1389, Khamenei is lonelier than ever, and and all the talk about succession and post-Khamenei Iran will not make life any easier for him. Last year, average Iranians as well as foreign politicians reminded him that he should be more accountable to the people or risk being viewed as a dictator.
PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI
Halfway through his presidency in his second term in office, Rouhani has just finished his hardest year. Not a week went by in the past year without protests somewhere in the country by workers, teachers, nurses, women, students, or truckers demanding their rights and unpaid wages. Adding to his troubles, his administration has not been able to make even a dent in Iran’s deepening economic crisis.
His only major achievement in his 6 years in office, the nuclear deal with the West, was destroyed when the U.S. left the agreement in May and imposed sanctions on Tehran. He started the year under an onslaught of criticism after the administration failed to respond properly to the humanitarian crisis caused by a major flood in Northern Iran, and his critics are already talking about eliminating the presidency and installing a prime minister in his stead.
ISLAMIC REVOLUTIONARY GUARDS QODS FORCE COMMANDER QASSEM SULEIMANI
Suleimani has been a popular general in Iran since 2011, when Iran’s political and military ambitions took him to Iraq and Syria. Soon, he became an icon, with his image adorning the walls of Tehran and other major Iranian cities, as well as the covers of major publications in Europe and America.
As Iran is left with little cash to fund its military expeditions in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere, and international and regional powers have made it difficult for Iran to be present in Syria, the myth of Suleimani’s as a military mastermind is being scrutinized. Following disclosures by former chief of staff of Israeli Defense Forces General Gadi Eizenkot about his tactical and strategic mistakes in Syria, it appears that Suleimani’s star may be descending.
FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF
Once the darling of the foreign press as he played out his charm offensive to win hearts and minds in the United States and Europe, Zarif’s fortune also began to descend after the U.S. pull-out from the nuclear deal. Since then, not only has he lost his popularity with the foreign press, but the Iranian public and media have also been paying less attention to him.
As far as the Iranian public is concerned, particularly the younger generation is disappointed in him for trying to justify Tehran’s human rights violations in his public diplomacy. In the meantime, he was so annoyed by being undercut by IRGC in conducting foreign policy in the Middle East, that he resigned his post in February, but was then more or less forced to take his resignation back.
PARLIAMENT SPEAKER ALI LARIJANI
Internationally acclaimed in his role in passing bills regarding the nuclear deal and Iran joining the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to combat corruption, Larijani stayed away from controversy last year. Towards the end of the year, a bill barring MPs from running for a fourth consecutive term was put forward, and if it passes, he may be left with no choice other than running for President in 2020 if he wants to stay in power. There is also a possibility that an amendment in the constitution might eliminate the post of the president of the republic. If the post remains and Larijani decides to run, he will need a strong alliance with the reformist camp.
REFORMIST CAMP LEADER MOHAMMAD KHATAMI
Khatami said himself in January that people may no longer listen to him if, like the two previous presidential elections and the 2015 Parliamentary elections, he asks them to vote for those he supports. Rouhani and other reformists backed by Khatami are seen as having failed to deliver on their promises.
REFORMIST MP MOHAMMAD REZA AREF
Aref won the biggest number of votes among the reform figures who made it to the parliament thanks to Khatami’s support. He was active for a while until the reform camp decided not to vote for Aref and instead elect Larijani as the speaker. Since this loss, he has kept mostly silent.
In the meantime, his son’s controversial remarks about his “superior genes” made the situation even worse for Aref. Aref would not likely win any election of voters went to the polls today.
JUDICIARY CHIEF EBRAHIM RAEESI
Raeesi kept a relatively low profile following his defeat in the 2017 presidential elections with nearly 16 million votes. But towards the end of the year he was tasked with two important jobs. First, Khamenei appointed him as Judiciary Chief, a post that makes him even more powerful than Iran’s President; and then the Assembly of Experts made him its vice-chairman.
Rouhani, who had a difficult relationship with former Judiciary Chief Sadeq Amoli Larijani, can only hope to be left alone in the next two years. Rouhani attacked Raeesi in election debates for his role in mass executions on 1988, but he made Pourmohammadi, a man with exactly the same background as Raeesi, his Justice Minister in his first term as president. Will Raeesi forgive and forget? It remains to be seen.
EXPEDIENCY COUNCIL SADEQ AMOLI LARIJANI
No one, even Amoli Larijani himself, can be quite sure if his shift from the Judiciary to the Expediency Council was a promotion or a demotion. The council is not always necessarily an important body. For the time being, the council made up of individuals who, with one or two exceptions, have invariably lost a higher position somewhere, is tasked with ratifying or shelving the FATF bills. For that, members have to listen to Khamenei. And Amoli Larijani’s main function throughout his career has been listening to him.
However, this is an uneasy position as some members such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could not care less for his chairmanships, and some others like incumbent President Rouhani never shows up at a meeting he does not lead.
GUARDIAN COUNCIL CHIEF AHMAD JANNATI
As the oldest and one of the most influential Iranian statesmen, Jannati, 92, has already started his inevitable retirement as mighty Ebrahim Raeesi has been elected as vice-chairman to the Assembly of Experts and also appointed as a Leading member of the Guardian Council in addition to his post as Judiciary Chief. Khamenei has been replacing elderly top turbans with younger and more loyal clerics all last year.
TEHRAN MP ALI MOTAHARI
The very-well connected outspoken vice-speaker of parliament has been criticizing everyone from the state TV to Rouhani and even Khamenei. Yet, he is clever enough to pair every criticism of Khamenei with a behavior seen as defending the principles of the Islamic Republic. Motahari has always liked to be known as a modern man who plays and watches football in his spare time and sometimes defends the rights of political prisoners. At the same time, he is a staunch supporter of “traditional” values such as compulsory hijab. He certainly cannot have it both ways forever, and this might affect his electability. Or he may not be allowed to run again if the proposed term limits are ratified.