All politics is local. This statement, attributed to the former U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, aptly summarizes the essence of the Iranian clerical regime of the past 42 years. Alex Vatanka examines the complex discord and pitfalls of the country’s leadership in his new book titled “The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979.”
The book focuses on Iran’s foreign policy, with an emphasis on the thorny Iranian-American relations, through the intense contest for power between the Islamic revolution’s leaders —chief among them former Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Vatanka provides an in-depth analysis of the evolution and inner workings of the Islamist ruling class in Iran that has exploited every foreign policy decision and action to bolster, validate, and expand its powers at home. Such decisions have included: the hostage taking of the U.S. Embassy and its occupants in 1979; the ten-year war with Iraq; the decades-long support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization; the development of the domestic nuclear industry since 2000; and the many attempts to export the Iranian revolution abroad.
Since 1979, Khomeini, Rafsanjani, and Khamenei have radically redefined Iran’s identity and reshaped the country’s relationship with its own people and with global superpowers. They have created a regime that has only been sustained by brutality and coercion.
The powerful Ayatollahs used anti-American, anti-Israeli, and anti-Arab propaganda as a fodder for suppressing domestic dissent and for pursuing aggressive foreign policies that often had little to no benefit to Iran’s national interests. After the death of Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, preservation of the Islamist regime at all costs became former President Rafsanjani and the new Supreme Leader Khamenei’s raison d’être.
The book is a searing indictment of the clerical system that has profoundly and thoroughly failed its people for more than 40 years. The internal rivalries, petty infighting, personal idiosyncrasies, betrayals, and untrammeled appetite for power that define the clerical regime lay bare its complete lack of moral credence, competence, imagination, and the will to improve the lives of the Iranian people.
Betraying the Islamic revolution’s lofty slogans of freedom and rooting out corruption, the clerical class only made things worse for its people as they have faced increased persecution, pain, suffering, war, loss, and privation since 1979. Matters have further worsened for the Iranian people due to international sanctions and isolation in the global arena.
Many of us who have a basic understanding of Iran’s history over the past 42 years could argue that the Iranian regime is self-serving, dangerous, and bizarre. Yet, with further insight, it appears even worse than that. Vatanka explains in vivid details the degree to which the Supreme Leader Khamenei is ready to turn against his allies, brutalize his own people, send them to war, and engage in anti-Western sloganeering to make himself more powerful and persecute his perceived and real opponents at home.
The rivalry between former President Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Khamenei translated into irrational, risky foreign and domestic policies.
The rivalry between former President Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Khamenei and their personal insecurities translated into irrational, risky foreign and domestic policies that have not only hurt Iran’s national interests but also laid the foundation for its further isolation in the global arena. For example, when former President Ronald Reagan sought to secretly supply weapons to Iran in 1985 in hopes of improving bilateral relations (with the ultimate goal of preventing it from falling into Soviet hands), the clerical regime squandered the opportunity to engage in a strategic opening with the U.S.
Later, Tehran’s refusal to engage in peace talks with Saddam Hussein, when he expressed willingness to stop the Iran-Iraq war, was also a missed opportunity to end the pointless conflict that took nearly 300,000 Iranian lives (with some estimates running much higher). Furthermore, the regime’s belligerent attitude toward Saudi Arabia has united Iran’s adversaries, particularly the Sunni Arab countries in the Arabian Gulf. In turn, Saudi Arabia financed Saddam’s war with Iran.
All the while, anti-Americanism, which Vatanka stresses was manufactured by the Islamists in Iran in 1979, became a pillar of the Islamic Republic. For decades, stubborn anti-Americanism has robbed Iran from pursuing foreign policy that makes sense for the country’s national interest of regional stability.
The Islamist leadership’s policies have been equally hurtful to Iran, dwindling chances of domestic peace and prosperity. Indeed, as Vatanka points out, Rafsanjani’s efforts to implement much needed economic reforms, which he hoped would boost his own political profile in the country, met stiff resistance from the Islamist ruling class that had a lot to lose from any meaningful change.
Khamenei shot down every effort to liberalize the ailing economy for fear of losing his own political power and the businesses he controlled, while his allies had no desire to jeopardize the vast economic largesse they had amassed under the clerical regime. As a result, the political rift between Rafsanjani and Khamenei deepened over the years.
The rivalry would ultimately lead to Rafsanjani’s gradual demotion within Iran’s political elite as Khamenei sought to grab more and more power to prop up the regime he now fully controlled.
As Vatanka reveals, for Khamenei, and to a large extent for Rafsanjani, government institutions meant nothing if any of them stood in the way of expanding their power. Thus, they eliminated the Office of Prime Minister in 1989 through a constitutional amendment. After this power struggle between Khamenei and Rafsanjani irrevocably poisoned their relationship, Khamenei wanted to eliminate the presidency as Rafsanjani supported candidates that were not to the Supreme Leader’s liking.
To this day, the presidency has no meaningful power in Iran. Eventually, Rafsanjani’s downfall was a result of underestimating the amount of power that comes from controlling the armed forces, the intelligence services, and the judicial branch in Iran, which are firmly under Khamenei’s command.
Vatanka’s book is a testament to the complexity of the political landscape in Iran that ultimately depends on the authority of the Supreme Leader, who, ironically, has never enjoyed full legitimacy and acceptance in the country but has managed to accumulate extraordinary powers.
Iran is hostage to the extremist clerical regime that sources its strength and legitimacy only from exploiting and exaggerating external threats.
The tragedy of Iran is that it is hostage to the extremist clerical regime that sources its strength and legitimacy only from exploiting and exaggerating external threats, while providing no sensible plan to develop the paralyzed economy. When the Iranian people revolted against the regime and the worsening living standards in 2009 and 2019, it violently put them down.
The book leaves readers wondering what will happen with Iran, given Khamenei is committed to putting the survival of the Islamic Republic fully under the control of hard-liners. The answer appears to be unsettling since the regime will fight tooth and nail to preserve itself, while it has little interest in changing anything on the domestic front.
“A party that does not believe in anything ends up believing only its right to rule,” wrote Tom Nichols, a Professor of International Relations at the U.S. Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School, about the current Republican Party in the U.S. in The Atlantic. Vatanka’s book underscores the veracity of this statement, which could not be more suitable to the Iranian regime, as it is likely to become more ruthless in suppressing its own people to retain power.