Iran protests: Is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei winning?

With Iran protests largely shut down, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has declared "victory." But as Iranians evaluate the past year during Norouz celebrations this weekend, he knows he's lost legitimacy, say close observers.

By , Staff writer

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    A handout photo shows Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei looking through field glasses on February 19, 2010.
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Iran celebrates the start of the Persian New Year – or Norouz – this weekend, a time of joyful spring renewal that will also be used by Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei to take stock of the damage done to the Islamic regime by post-election Iran protests and a determined opposition movement.

The Green Movement has been forced off the streets by police and security forces, and senior hard-line officials have declared “victory.”

But does Iran’s most powerful man – whose official title is God’s Deputy on Earth, infallible to his ardent followers – think he is winning?

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Ayatollah Khamenei keeps a very tight circle, so divining the machinations of his mind can be akin to Soviet-era Kremlinology. But after watching him for decades, several close observers believe that he knows he has lost much legitimacy.

“He’s in triumphant mood right now,” says an Iranian political scientist, who asked not to be further identified. “But deep down, he knows he’s lost the war of legitimacy and popularity.”

Ayatollah Khamenei “feels he’s got the upper hand at the moment,” says the Iranian academic. “But at the same time, deep inside – this is my belief – he does not have a very good sleep at night. He’s very angry – that’s what I can see in his face. The slogans they leveled against him, the image he’s got – he’s lost a lot of the popularity he had.”

The result is likely to be hard pushback against any further unrest, but Khamenei must strike a balance over ordering too much force. And while the opposition is temporarily sidelined, its leaders are vowing to press on.

Khamenei's calculus: Keep 30 percent of people on board

In the June 2009 election, Khamenei had declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s official 2-to-1 margin of victory over former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi a “divine assessment.”

But a host of irregularities caused the opposition to cry fraud, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested.

Scores died as hard-line regime enforcers shot, clubbed, whipped, and arrested people to reestablish control during one of the most severe crises in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Accounts of death, rape, and torture in custody further degraded Iran’s reputation.

For the first time, the supreme leader became a target on the streets: Protesters burned and trampled posters of him, shouting “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to the Leader.”

The reaction was an even more forceful response.

“The regime has got a lot more aggressive, and it’s going to be more aggressive in coming months,” says Mehdi Khalaji, a seminary-trained Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) who is working on a biography of the supreme leader.

“[Khamenei] thinks, ‘If I can have even 20-30 percent of the people with me, and have systematic pressure on the other 70 percent, I can lead for a long time and there wouldn’t be a serious threat against me,’” says Mr. Khalaji, whose father, an ayatollah in the Iranian religious center of Qom, was arrested without charge and held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison for three weeks in January.

“[Khamenei] tries to keep as many people [as he can] inside the circle of the elite, [while] empowering the suppression machinery of the regime more than before,” adds Khalaji.

Supreme leader's difficult balance

Analysts say keeping sufficient core supporters on board while using force against perceived “enemies” is a balance that will be difficult to maintain. A number of official rallies were hijacked by opposition activists, which embarrassed the regime, but by the 31st anniversary of the revolution on Feb. 11, security forces and intelligence operatives had the measure of many opposition tactics.

The regime’s countertactics worked, say opposition activists in Tehran, who were surprised by the setback. Many had raised their expectations to fever pitch, expecting that the regime would crumble on that day. Their subsequent disappointment at being unable to even prove their numeric strength led to “depression” – and delight in official circles.

“It’s almost like one voice coming out of the establishment, state-run television, all their hard-line newspapers, saying that ‘we managed to crush them,’” says a veteran political analyst in Tehran who could not be named.

“At the same time, worries are clear to see,” the analyst says. “They are not in a state of panic [as] in the past, but are still on very high alert. They feel that enemies are organizing, and reformers are just pawns.”

Mousavi: Coming year one of 'patience and endurance'

Mr. Mousavi has kept fighting back, and this week declared that the coming year would be one of "patience and endurance."

"My feeling for the future is that this movement is irreversible," Mousavi said in a speech on Monday, according to a translation of a Persian website in the Los Angeles Times. "We will never go back to the position we were in one year ago. I’m very hopeful of the future. We have to transfer patience and hope to people."

Mousavi said the opposition “aimed at reviving a compassionate Islam and the Constitution," which guarantees freedom of speech, protest, and no ideological compulsion. “Prison is no longer effective against the Green Movement.”

Now behind the wheel, hard-liners lambast 'tolerant' Islam

Yet while the opposition have made a substantial impact, there has been an overall shift to the right in Iranian politics, with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s neoconservative politicians, the supreme leader’s office, and top Revolutionary Guard officers joined in a loose troika that have conducted a systematic purge of key ministries and security organs.

The Tehran analyst recalls the 1997-2004 presidency of the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami, and how debates about the tolerant nature of Islam did not automatically lead to attack.

“Now [hard-line] newspapers like Kayhan write, ‘This guy, you can’t believe it! He believes in Islam based on tolerance!’ As if it’s a curse, like [he’s] a communist,” says the analyst. “That voice comes from a small group, but they are behind the wheel now.... This is a big shift of the common ground that [once] existed ... inside the establishment.”

Image of division damaging for Khamenei

Leading (or following) that shift has been the supreme leader, who analysts agree stepped away from his traditional role after 20 years in the job as political balancer. Until last summer, consensus within Iran’s opaque Islamic system was often the goal.

Divisions have been part of the Islamic Republic from the start, but their nature after the vote has challenged Khamenei’s view of what the Islamic Republic should be.

“What hurts him is that some people can reveal this division,” says Khalaji at WINEP. “The division itself is not important. He thinks, ‘I can manage it, I can deal with opposition, I can intimidate them, I can prevent them from coming to the streets.’

“What is damaging to him is media, is pictures – the image of opposition is damaging for him,” adds Khalaji. “That’s why he’s so tough on media, on intellectuals, artists, writers, professors at university – nobody should talk about it. Talking about this means questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.”

'This doesn't smell of victory'

Yet another way of questioning that legitimacy, by the right-wing itself, has been the denigration of some of the titans of Iran’s revolutionary generation.

The three top opposition leaders have all been branded “heads of sedition” and traitors, but they all played key roles in the past: Mousavi was a respected prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; Mr. Khatami a two-time president with unprecedented popular mandates; and Mehdi Karroubi a two-time former parliament speaker and presidential candidate.

“Stopping the visible protests in the streets, that’s a win [for Khamenei], of course,” says the veteran Tehran analyst. “But blaming and losing all the people who have been part of the establishment, who have worked hard, sacrificed and done a lot ... pushing them away.... So all of them are bad now? All those around the Leader – 30 years of struggle, 50 years of struggle – have gone bad?

“This doesn’t introduce any taste or smell of victory.”

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