Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seemed pretty smug this week, judging by the Trump-like swagger of his Twitter feed. And why wouldn’t he? The anti-government protests that shook his country for a week and left at least 21 people dead were in his rearview mirror — and the old man could lean back, fire up Twitter, and blame the uprising on his foreign enemies.
“You've failed,” Khamenei tweeted at the U.S. and UK, while taunting the “psychotic,” “unstable” President Trump. The notion that Iran’s leaders might now be “terrified” of their own people, he declared “nonsense.”
But Khamenei’s victory dance masks a dangerous new reality, experts covering Iranian politics say: the protests, in fact, changed everything.
The unrest revealed a profound frustration with Iran’s leadership that runs deeper than seemingly anyone realized, spread far beyond liberals in the capital, Tehran, to conservatives in the hinterland. Analysts told VICE News that uprising was all about Iranian people declaring themselves fed up — about economic stagnation, high unemployment, corruption, rising food and gasoline prices, and a state budget released in December that failed to address their day-to-day concerns.
What’s more, the protests raised the stakes of the looming transition pretty much everyone in Iran knows is coming: After three decades in power, the 78-year-old Supreme Leader, long-rumored to have cancer, may not be around much longer.
“The next Supreme Leader will likely define the direction of Iran, more than any other actor, for the next two decades, minimum.”
That means Iran is hurtling toward its biggest political transition since the current Supreme Leader took charge in 1989, analysts say. And this reality has thrown Iran’s political elite into a Game of Thrones on the Persian Gulf as power players jockey to install their man as heir.
“Almost everything that’s happening right now comes in the context of this continuous and very nervous fight about who will be the next Supreme Leader,” said Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
“The next Supreme Leader will likely define the direction of Iran, more than any other actor, for the next two decades, minimum,” Parsi told VICE News.
Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution left the country with a unique, dual political system in which a president is elected every four years, but ultimate authority sits with the religious Supreme Leader. Khamenei is the second man to ever hold the title, and he’s played a hugely influential role in setting the country on its current path.
Once expected to be a mere figurehead, Khamenei turned out to be a hands-on boss, crafting policy on everything from Iran’s nuclear program to foreign military adventures in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Now, with questions constantly swirling about his health, the country’s future will likely hang on the shoulders of the man chosen to replace him.
“We can now say with some confidence that ordinary working Iranians throughout the country are not very happy with the Islamic Republic. That is really different.”
Technically, the job of picking his successor falls to a panel of clerics called the Assembly of Experts. “But nobody expects that group of 86 old men to actually be the decision-makers,” said Patrick Clawson, Director of Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Instead, Khamenei’s looming exit has set in motion an internal battle between the moderate reformers aligned with the current president Hassan Rouhani, conservatives supporting Khamenei, and, possibly, the powerful military force known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, analysts said.
The latest round of protests were actually kicked off by the conservatives themselves, according press reports, in Khamenei’s ultra-religious hometown city of Mashad, as an attack on President Rouhani. But they soon raged out of control, as protesters turned against both conservatives and reformers alike, according to Clawson.
“Many demonstrators were saying: 'We don’t give a damn about your moderates vs. hardliners, to hell with all of you,’” Clawson said. “We can now say with some confidence that ordinary working Iranians throughout the country are not very happy with the Islamic Republic. That is really different.”
And that change adds a volatile new element to the selection of a new Supreme Leader: Popular unrest.
“What a lot of the elite want is modest change within the framework of the existing system, and that’s exactly what the protesters were rejecting,” Clawson said.
The resulting tension between the reformers, hardliners, and a general public unhappy with the status quo sets the stage for a high-stakes competition to choose the man who will likely lead Iran for the next 30 years or longer.
“That last transition was tricky,” Parsi said. “This one is going to be a much dirtier process than the previous one, most likely.”