Nobody 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.”
Yet 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.
1. Deflect accountability
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 government failures.
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 decisions.
If the supreme leader wants to , 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.
2. Project modesty
“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 cleric.
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.
3. Don’t compromise
“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.
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.
Machiavelli, 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 entity.
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 benefactor-in-chief.
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 own stature.”
In 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.”
For 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 things.”
What’s 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 agitate.
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.
And 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.
First published in ForeignPolicy.com.
Karim Sadjadpour is an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.