Is Iran’s Supreme Leader really so supreme?

Gary Sick writes: With the surprising Iranian election over, and the moderate Hassan Rouhani elected by a clear majority, a new narrative is emerging. It asserts that absolutely nothing has changed, that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, let the election proceed for his own devious reasons, and that only he can make decisions about Iran’s strategic policies, regardless of who is president.

This is a facile and self-serving argument. After Friday’s election, which reversed all predictions, those of us who watch Iran closely should ask ourselves whether the supreme leader is as supreme as he pretends.

Despite witticisms about “one man, one vote — and that one man is Khamenei,” I am willing to bet that the leader’s vote very early last Friday morning was not for the winning candidate. After all, Rouhani had argued for changes in how Iran deals with political prisoners and particularly its treatment of the former Green candidates who are languishing in house arrest. Those are Khamenei’s policies.

But it is not only the election. Just look at the record. Over the past 15 years, Iran has pursued a series of quite different negotiating strategies with the West: from a temporary suspension of enrichment under the new president-elect, to an on-again-off-again offer to compromise on 20 percent enrichment that resulted in a formal offer via Turkey and Brazil, then a full court stall and “resistance” strategy under the stewardship of the now-forgettable Saeed Jalili. The one constant during all these episodes was the unquestioned supremacy of one man. [Continue reading…]

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