Duelling claims for power

The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has faced increasing criticism since protests have overtaken Tehran. Is this the end for him? FRANCE 24 looks at the severest power struggle the nation has seen since the 1979 revolution.


"Death to the dictator! Death to Khamenei!" Such slogans – heard recently from Iranian protesters – would have previously been unimaginable in the post-revolutionary Islamic republic. They are particularly remarkable since they are aimed at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

On Saturday, June 20, the eighth day of the struggle between the government and the opposition, the reformist presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi published an open letter in which he accused Supreme Leader Khamenei (without naming him outright) of endangering the state's republican character. It was the first time in the nation’s history that the someone in the position had been the object of such virulent attacks.

Influential clerics have also spoken out as well.

"The grand ayatollahs are starting to take a stance against repression," Karim Pakzad, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations and Strategy (French acronym: Iris), told FRANCE 24. "They are even demanding that the election results be reexamined."

Khamenei is under such tremendous pressure that numerous experts are wondering whether he will be forced out.

The supreme leader, designated by the Assembly of Experts to serve a term of indeterminate length, is the head of armed forces and national security and determines the outline of the state's policy. He also names the heads of the Guardian Council and of the supreme court, the attorney general and the directors of state radio and television. Last but not least, he can oust the president with the agreement of the supreme court.

Nevertheless, he is not untouchable. His actions are reviewed by the Assembly of Experts, which is led by Akbar Hachemi Rafsanjani, a former president. The assembly consists of 86 mullahs, chosen in a general election, and they can limit the supreme leader’s responsibilities – at least in theory.

The Rafsanjani clan in the hot seat

Rafsanjani, the chief rival of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been silent since the riots and the contestation of the presidential election results. He is suspected of working behind the scenes to orchestrate the fall of Khamenei.

Rafsanjani, who is also head of the Expediency Discernment Council, is said to have helped Mousavi finance his presidential campaign and to have sought the support of important Shi'ite dignitaries in the holy city of Qom.

But this may not be enough to unseat Khamenei as supreme leader.

Khamenei remains the force behind the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, who constitute his chief method of oppression.

Saturday, Faezeh Rafsanjani, the daughter of the ex-president, was forcibly detained at a gathering in Tehran, along with some of her entourage. She was released shortly afterward. She is among the most virulent opponents of the current regime, having participated in protests all over the nation.

Whatever happens to Khamenei, the very foundations of the Islamic republic may be threatened. Regardless of the origin of the turmoil that has overtaken the nation, the current system is in danger of being severely weakened by these power struggles and clan wars.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning