By Majid Rafizadeh
Iran’s state-owned Persian newspapers have put significant emphasis on recent statements made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei regarding the nation’s injustices.
Etemad newspaper, whose editor-in-chief is a former military officer, carried a headline stating: “The leader of the revolution: I am fully aware of (people’s) criticisms.” Khamenei’s speech that the newspaper reported on was part of his good cop, bad cop strategy. This shrewd policy is one of the reasons that Khamenei has been capable of ruling for nearly three decades (he is the second longest-serving dictator in the region). Unlike other authoritarian leaders who have been toppled — such as Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak — Khamenei often does not totally reject the idea that people have grievances. In his tactical and crafted speech, he acknowledged that people are suffering because of the economy, unemployment and injustice.
On the one hand, Khamenei is projecting to the ordinary people that he totally sympathizes with them, that he stands with them, and that he is on their side. He is distinguishing and separating himself from the dominant religious and political establishments, which the majority of the people have become dissatisfied with and complain about.
On the other hand, Khamenei is also placing the blame for injustices on anonymous “officials.” By throwing the ball into other people’s court, Khamenei is evading accountability and responsibility. He stated that the “officials” ought to listen to people’s concerns and apologize to the people and to God.
The headline of Iran’s major intelligence newspaper (Ettela’at) read: “The Great Supreme Leader of the Revolution: Aristocracy not paying attention to the oppressed and depending on foreigners is a disease for (our) revolution.”
But, more importantly, who are the “officials” that Khamenei has been referring to for decades? The term “officials” is ambiguous. Not only it does not solve the underlying problem, it actually complicates it. By pointing fingers at “officials,” does Khamenei mean it is Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or a low-level clerk who works at the Ministry of the Economy who is responsible for the injustices? Does he mean it is a soldier of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force — a branch of the IRGC that conducts covert and extra-territorial military operations — who is responsible?
For decades, the regime’s leader has failed to precisely name who is culpable. The term “officials” is intentionally broad and ambiguous in order to avoid charging, indicting, bringing to justice and putting in prison any of the regime’s staff. In spite of Khamenei’s many speeches blaming these officials, Iran’s judiciary, which has its top official directly appointed by Khamenei, has not followed up to hold anybody accountable.
However, there is one phenomenon clear about the term “officials” and that is the fact Khamenei does not see himself as such. From the perspective of the regime’s supreme leader, he is appointed by God, not the people, to lead Iran. He views himself as the earthly representative of the Hidden Imam Al-Mahdi. In fact, his official Persian website describes him as the supreme leader of the entire Islamic world.
If Khamenei was truly trying to find out which officials were responsible for the people’s poverty and economic injustices, one approach would be to look at the regime’s organizations and the affiliated individuals who control and receive a large portion of the nation’s resources, revenues and budget. Another method would be to observe who makes the final decisions when it comes to the economy and domestic and foreign policies.
Given his position and control, it appears that the final decision-maker in matters related to Iran’s economy, the regime’s fundamental issues and foreign policies is Khamenei himself. Furthermore, there are two major institutions that have significant control over the nation’s economy and politics and are recipients of large portions of the budget: The IRGC and its affiliates and the Office of the Supreme Leader.
Although the IRGC is known as a military organization, it has been involved in monopolizing Iran’s economy by engaging in illegal trading. The IRGC buys and controls various economic sectors, such as telecommunications, gas and oil, and commercial airlines. In addition, when it comes to Khamenei, just one of the organizations he owns — Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam — is worth at least $95 billion.
In a nutshell, Khamenei’s good cop, bad cop strategy is aimed at dodging responsibility, accountability and strengthening his grip on power. To detect who is responsible for the people’s poverty and the injustices that many endure, Khamenei should look no further than those who make the top decisions: Meaning himself, his loyal forces and the gilded circle of his cronies.