has ever confused Niccolo Machiavelli with an Islamic revolutionary -- but he
certainly knew a thing or two about revolutions. The Florentine political
philosopher watched his native city overthrow, restore, and then overthrow
again the powerful Medici family. And it was in this hotbed of backstabbing
clans, religious favoritism, and political power plays that Machiavelli
sharpened his teeth. Ah, how he would have enjoyed the Tehran of today.
Half a millennia later, the author of The Prince and intellectual father of
realpolitik has found one of his most impressive students in Iranian Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- another leader well-acquainted with the
exercise of acquiring, and keeping, political power. Indeed, President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, whose rise (and now his seeming fall from grace) was orchestrated
by Khamenei, is the third Iranian head of state (preceded by Hashemi Rafsanjani
and Mohammed Khatami) whom Khamenei has outmaneuvered.
This is only the latest struggle from which Khamenei
appears to have come out on top. For the last 22 years, he's woken up every
morning and gone to bed every night believing not only that many of his own
subjects want to unseat him, but also that the greatest superpower in the world
is plotting his demise. In summer 2009, his worst fears became reality when
millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad's tainted
reelection. Some of them chanted slogans of "Death to Khamenei" and "Khamenei
is an assassin, his rulership is annulled."
after Oman's Sultan Qaboos and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi -- who
continues to hang by a thread -- Khamenei is now the longest serving autocrat
in the Middle East.
It is no accident that Khamenei has succeeded thus
far in beating back the challenge posed by the Green Movement. Despite his Shiite
pretentions, his ruling ideology is more Machiavelli than martyrdom. It's a
fact that Machiavelli himself -- who trudged around Italy with papal armies,
marveling at the combination of military might and religious authority -- would
have observed with a knowing smile.
Throughout Khamenei's rule, he has held to five basic
tenets that reflect the philosophy of statecraft -- and stagecraft -- embodied
in Machiavelli's famous treatise.
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Machiavelli is famous for the aphorism that it is
better for a politician to be feared than loved. But he cautioned that in order
to avoid being despised and hated, a prince should "delegate to others the
enactment of unpopular measures and keep in their own hands the means of
winning favors." A prince could not ask for a better political system for this
purpose than that of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranian regime is
uniquely adapted to grant the supreme leader the power to distribute favors and
control key state institutions, while shielding him from responsibility for
The constitutional authority of the supreme leader
allows Khamenei to wield power without accountability. He controls the main
levers of state -- the courts, military, and media -- and has effective control
over Iran's second most powerful political institution, the Guardian Council.
This 12-person body, whose members are all directly or indirectly appointed by
Khamenei, has the authority to vet electoral candidates and veto parliamentary
If the supreme leader wants to endorse
the validity of tainted elections, the Guardian Council can do it. If he
wishes to undermine
the president, he can enlist his allies in parliament. Need to quash an
uprising? Let the basij militia
take the blame. Through it all, he can maintain the appearance of a magnanimous
leader staying above the fray -- letting others do his dirty work.
At the same time, the presence of an ostensibly
"elected" president and parliament has served as a buffer between Khamenei and
the displeasure of citizens. The supreme leader likes being the man behind the
curtain: A Persian-language Google search for "Khamenei" renders less than half
the number of hits as a search for "Ahmadinejad." (In English-language Google
searches, Ahmadinejad outpaces Khamenei by a 5-to-1 margin).
Because the president enjoys such a high profile both
domestically and internationally, he also tends to bear the brunt of
responsibility when things aren't going well -- and in today's increasingly
mismanaged and authoritarian Iran, they usually aren't.
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"A prince can always avoid hatred if he abstains from
the property of his subjects and citizens and from their women," Machiavelli
wrote. "To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion,
a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and religious man."
Khamenei may lack the charisma and religious
credentials of his more learned predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the
revolution that ended 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran. However, he has tried to
make up for this deficit by painstakingly cultivating the image of a humble
Whereas his dictatorial counterparts throughout the
Middle East boast lavish palaces and private tailors, Khamenei's official
residence -- hidden from the public -- is in working-class central Tehran, and
his sartorial tastes usually consist of drab robes, slippers, nerdy glasses,
and a Palestinian kaffiyeh.
Visitors to Khamenei's abode speak of its simple
décor and plain dinner menu -- usually nothing more than bread, cheese, and eggs -- as
a way of currying favor with their self-effacing leader. Notorious hardline
cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi even went so far as to claim that during the lean
years of the Iran-Iraq war, then-President Khamenei relied on food stamps (known
as coupon) in order to buy meat.
These anecdotes are humbly
showcased on one of Khamenei's official websites.
Khamenei has also tried to keep his family out of the
limelight. Whereas this year's popular protests in the Arab world were in part
directed against famous first shoppers like Syria's Asma al-Assad, Tunisia's
Leila Ben-Ali, and Egypt's Suzanne Mubarak, the Iranian public, remarkably,
has never even seen a photograph of Mrs. Khamenei.
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"When settling disputes between his subjects, he
should ensure that his judgment is irrevocable; and he should be so regarded
that no one ever dreams of trying to deceive or trick him," Machiavelli
advised. "It is always the case that the one who is not your friend will
request your neutrality, and that the one who is your friend will request your
armed support. Princes who are irresolute usually follow the path of neutrality
in order to escape immediate danger, and usually they come to grief."
Given the image that Khamenei has tried to cultivate
as a fair-minded guardian, many Iranians were surprised when he responded to
the massive protests after the contested June 2009 elections not with
conciliation but overwhelming brutality. They shouldn't have been.
Khamenei learned this lesson during the 1978
uprisings against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. When the embattled shah attempted
to pacify demonstrators by vowing to make amends for past transgressions --
declaring that he'd "heard the voice" of the revolution (a line recently echoed
by teetering autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria), he unwittingly emboldened
his foes. Khamenei had no such taste for conciliation: He knew full well that
if he ceded any ground to opposition demands, it would only increase their
appetite for change.
This same attitude is present in Khamenei's approach
to foreign policy. He has long held that Tehran must not compromise in the face
of U.S. coercion and intimidation, for it would only project weakness and
encourage even greater pressure from Washington. So despite six U.N. Security
Council resolutions, escalating economic sanctions, and occasional military
threats, the Islamic Republic's foreign and nuclear policies have remained
defiant. "Rights cannot be achieved by entreating," Khamenei once said. "If you
supplicate, withdraw and show flexibility, arrogant powers will make their
threat more serious." So don't expect Tehran to barter away its spinning
nuclear centrifuges anytime soon.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
4. Cultivate the military
In contrast to Khomeini, a bona fide religious
scholar, Khamenei had the clerical equivalent of a master's degree (hojjat'ol'eslam) before being
undeservingly granted the title of Ayatollah when he was chosen as Khomeini's
successor. Khamenei has therefore sought legitimacy in the barracks rather than
the seminaries of Qom. And as his popular legitimacy fades, his reliance on and
indulgence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- a 125,000-strong
military force with increasingly corporatist behavior -- has grown.
who spearheaded the creation of the Florentine Republic's citizen-militia,
would appreciate the strategy. He warned, "When
princes have thought more of ease than of arms they have lost their states. And
the first cause of your losing it is to neglect this art; and what enables you
to acquire a state is to be master of the art."
While the strong, artful arm of the IRGC has been politically
expedient for Khamenei, it
has also been economically expedient for the Guards. Under Khamenei's
patronage, Revolutionary Guard-affiliated companies and contractors are
increasingly operating massive public infrastructure projects involving water,
electricity, and transport (including the Tehran metro). As a result of
sanctions and paltry foreign investment, IRGC companies have been granted
multiple no-bid contracts in the oil and mining sector. While the numbers are
nebulous, the vast economic activities of the IRGC can be measured in the tens
of billions of dollars, making it arguably the country's most potent economic
There's an obvious downside to the wealth the IRGC
has amassed: By virtue of Khamenei's reliance on the guards, he's been forced
to cede significant influence and authority to them. Yet he's still the boss: He handpicks their top commanders and changes them
frequently. It's a symbiotic relationship: The IRGC needs the authority
provided by the supreme leader's position, and Khamenei needs their muscle. In
contrast to the Egyptian and Tunisian armies who cut loose their dictators
either for the benefit of the nation or for the benefit of themselves, the
senior cadres of the Revolutionary Guard -- not necessarily the rank and file,
who are politically diverse -- see their fate intertwined with that of their
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5. Maintain an external enemy
"There is no doubt that a prince's greatness depends
on his triumphing over difficulties and opposition," Machiavelli wrote. "Many,
therefore, believe that when he has the chance an able prince should cunningly
foster some opposition to himself so that by overcoming it he can enhance his
three decades worth of writings and speeches, Khamenei's contempt for the
United States has been remarkably consistent and enduring. Whether the topic of
discussion is foreign policy, agriculture, or educational policy, he seamlessly
relates the subject matter to the cruelty, greed, and sinister plots of what he
calls America's "global arrogance."
Khamenei, enmity toward the United States was a fundamental pillar of the 1979
revolution and central to the Islamic Republic's identity. But today this
opposition is driven as much by self-preservation as ideology. Khamenei is
acutely aware that a
rapprochement with the United States that reintegrated Iran back into the
global political and economic order would likely spur unpredictable changes
that could significantly dilute his hold on power. As Machiavelli warned, "There is nothing more
difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its
success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of
more, it is politically and ideologically expedient for Khamenei to have the
United States and Israel as adversaries, so he has a convenient culprit when
the population rises up, economic malaise worsens, or ethnic minorities
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A Machiavellian End?
Although these tactics have served Khamenei well for
over two decades, the supreme leader has come to neglect some of the tenets
that enabled his long reign. His initially defiant support for Ahmadinejad -- despite
massive popular uprisings and unprecedented fissures among the country's
political elites -- earned him derision of the kind that
Machiavelli consistently warned against.
Other moves have eroded Khamenei's reputation for
moderation and humility. He has allowed one of his four sons, Mojtaba, to
assume an increasingly influential and visible role as his consigliere. He has allowed, if not encouraged, sycophants to
proclaim him the prophet's representative on earth. One particularly creative
clerical brownnoser even claimed that, in contrast to other babies who
merely cry upon exiting their mothers' wombs, Khamenei shouted out "ya Ali!" --
a popular Shiite exclamation.
when it comes to drumming up the fear of external enemies, Khamenei no doubt
found it easier under President George W. Bush's administration than during
Barack Obama's tenure. As one senior Iranian
politico opined to me a few months into Obama's presidency, "If we can't make
nice with Barack Hussein Obama, who's preaching mutual respect on a weekly basis
and sending us Nowrooz greetings, it's going to be obvious the problem lies in
Tehran, not Washington."
However cunning, it's impossible to escape the fact
that Khamenei is a 72-year-old leader who hasn't left the country since 1989, presiding
over a population where nearly 70 percent are under the age of 33 and connected
to the world via satellite TV and Internet. Whether or not not he manages to
die as supreme leader is an open question. But the gap between Khamenei and
Iranian society has become unbridgeable, and only maintainable via coercion and
Machiavellian power politics. Despite
his vast authority, his public appearances increasingly render him less a supreme leader than a grouchy old man yelling at his youthful subjects to stay
off his proverbial lawn.
Khamenei's inflexibility has so far served him well.
His unwillingness to bend, however, has made it more likely that the Islamic
Republic itself will have to break. As a young advisor to opposition leader
Mehdi Karoubi recently told me, "We don't want a revolution; we've seen how it
turns the country upside down. But they're giving us no other choice."
Machiavelli died in 1527, distrusted by all sides and
disliked by the people he aimed to serve. It would be poetic justice if one of
his most practiced disciples suffered the same fate.
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