Whose Iran Is It Anyway?

Ali Khamenei won’t give up power for anyone—not even his president.

By , the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow in the Frontier Europe Initiative at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
A woman in a mask walks by a large mural of Khamenei.
A woman in a mask walks by a large mural of Khamenei.
A woman walks past a mural showing Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on March 9. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

When he declared his presidential candidacy in May 2021, Ebrahim Raisi was already recognized as a favorite of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A month later, Raisi was handed the job on a silver platter of an election that was carefully engineered by Khamenei. Voter turnout hit a historical low, making clear that Iranian voters saw the sham for what it was. From the get-go, then, Raisi’s primary concern was not Iranian public opinion but Khamenei’s continued patronage.

Over the course of his first year in office, President Raisi has been the loyal foot solider Khamenei had envisioned and has not rocked the boat. There has been only one unmistakable moment when the circles around the two men tussled, and overall, Raisi has been willing to be the fall guy for policy failures that are effectively outside his control.

These failures run the gamut, from a debilitating inflation rate to stalemated nuclear talks to Raisi’s lack of vision in addressing popular grievances such as the rule on mandatory veiling for women, which was introduced in 1981. Meanwhile, Raisi’s first year in office overlapped with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and heightened U.S. tensions with both Russia and China. This geopolitical turmoil elsewhere has given Khamenei cause to believe that the grip of U.S. sanctions on Iran will soon be broken and that he can stay his policy course. If not, he will still have Raisi as a scapegoat. That’s the simple, and sad, reality for Iran’s president.

When he declared his presidential candidacy in May 2021, Ebrahim Raisi was already recognized as a favorite of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A month later, Raisi was handed the job on a silver platter of an election that was carefully engineered by Khamenei. Voter turnout hit a historical low, making clear that Iranian voters saw the sham for what it was. From the get-go, then, Raisi’s primary concern was not Iranian public opinion but Khamenei’s continued patronage.

Over the course of his first year in office, President Raisi has been the loyal foot solider Khamenei had envisioned and has not rocked the boat. There has been only one unmistakable moment when the circles around the two men tussled, and overall, Raisi has been willing to be the fall guy for policy failures that are effectively outside his control.

These failures run the gamut, from a debilitating inflation rate to stalemated nuclear talks to Raisi’s lack of vision in addressing popular grievances such as the rule on mandatory veiling for women, which was introduced in 1981. Meanwhile, Raisi’s first year in office overlapped with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and heightened U.S. tensions with both Russia and China. This geopolitical turmoil elsewhere has given Khamenei cause to believe that the grip of U.S. sanctions on Iran will soon be broken and that he can stay his policy course. If not, he will still have Raisi as a scapegoat. That’s the simple, and sad, reality for Iran’s president.


The regime-controlled media in Iran likes to depict Raisi as a man of the people. He is said to be breaking records in the number of visits he makes to the provinces to mingle with people in struggling communities. The other undoubted record that Raisi has broken is the rate of inflation, which stands at 52.5 percent and feeds much public anger. Still, the Raisi government is only partially responsible for exacerbating inflationary pressures.

In a late-night television speech in May, Raisi announced that the days of subsidized U.S. dollars—at 42,000 rial per dollar as compared with 280,000 rial at market rate—were over. The subsidized rate had been meant to keep the price of essential imports down. With its removal, prices for everyday foods and consumer goods shot up. Street protests by poorer segments of the community, an increasingly large share, followed. Raisi’s team had called the decision “economic surgery,” something painful that nonetheless had to happen.

When the angry protests expanded in scope, Economy Minister Ehsan Khandouzi was accused of falsifying inflation data to deflect blame. This was shortly after the labor minister, Hojjatollah Abdolmaleki, became the first of Raisi’s ministers to be removed, after his repeated fictitious claims on job creation and inability to pay pensions on time.

But the problems of Khandouzi and Abdolmaleki are symptoms of a larger phenomenon outside Raisi’s purview. The cabinet is made up of individuals who are short on proven bureaucratic competence but are loyalists to Khamenei’s worldview. That worldview is essentially xenophobic: Khamenei invented the concept of the “resistance economy”—maximizing domestic economic activity and production while limiting the role of the outside world, or at least the West, in Iran’s economy—and he sees no need to apologize for it.

It falls on the Raisi government to implement the vague set of economic edicts that come down from the Office of the Supreme Leader, or simply reading between the lines of Khamenei’s public utterances. While Khamenei has seemingly no problem with China being Iran’s really only major oil customer, Raisi can operate only within the constraints that Khamenei sets for him.

The man who shapes Iran’s strategic stance toward the outside world is Khamenei.

The simple truth is that Iran’s economic calamity is a product of the regime’s isolation-inducing foreign policy, which is outside Raisi’s—and the parliament’s—control. The man who shapes Iran’s strategic stance toward the outside world is Khamenei, who as supreme leader since 1989 is the most responsible for disconnecting Iran from the global economy.

Nor are Khamenei’s reactionary and intransigent ways limited to only foreign or economic policy. In recent weeks, as an example, more and more Iranian women have bravely mobilized against the enforcement of mandatory veiling, but Khamenei continues to express his commitment to what he calls Islamic values, which includes veiling.

Khamenei’s rigidity is hitting not just Raisi but also the clergy, of which Khamenei is the head. Anti-clericalism is at a record high in Iran, with random attacks on common clerics on the rise. A senior cleric, Ayatollah Mostafa M. Damad, recently suggested that the only rescue for the clerical class is to separate itself from politics. This is a pretty bold statement from anyone who lives in this theocracy. It is also revealing about the extent of rising introspection among a clerical class that has been the backbone of the Islamic Republic since 1979.

The struggle over mandatory veiling is a perfect microcosm of the forces battling for power in Iran today. There is a deep sense of public resentment against the regime pursuing wrongheaded foreign and domestic priorities, such as forced veiling. This is in turn met by intransigence from Khamenei and his armed guardians in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which keeps the regime intact. But the pressure from the bottom for change is not only not going away but expanding.

It used to be younger people and the middle classes in Tehran that mobilized street protests against the regime. But during Raisi’s first year in office, as the economy continues to falter, protests have come mainly from provinces and the working class. For now, Khamenei has the upper hand. He evidently believes that concessions to the Iranian public—or to external powers such as the United States—will result in only more concessions being demanded.

In the meantime, his titular role as the religious guide of the political system shields him from everyday blame, which can instead be placed on Raisi and his government. Raisi has not and is unlikely to push back. He owes everything to Khamenei, and he knows it.

In the realm of foreign policy, Raisi again plays second fiddle. This is true on principal foreign-policy issues, such as the nuclear talks with the Americans, or in shaping Iran’s strategic proclivity toward Russia and China. These policies remain overwhelmingly shaped by the readings and calculations of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard.

Raisi, of course, knows that the one silver bullet that might combat inflation is the lifting of the most important sanctions on Iran, such as the ban on its oil exports or its exclusion from global banking. But Raisi does not have the clout to push for a nuclear agreement over Khamenei’s head.

In fact, Raisi has to date no foreign-policy achievement that he can call his own. Iran’s admission to the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September 2021 was more about Moscow’s and Beijing’s calculations vis-à-vis the United States than about Raisi’s policy vision. The slow, ongoing process of détente between Iran and the Gulf states is driven more by Arab doubts about Washington’s commitment to their security than any one policy initiative by Raisi’s government. The list goes on.

The closest to an open clash between Raisi and Khamenei came in April, when the circle around Raisi leaked embarrassing information about an expensive shopping trip in Turkey by the family of the speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Qalibaf. Qalibaf is another favorite of Khamenei but also a rival to Raisi, even as they both come from the same hard-line faction in the regime.

All this raises the question: What is Raisi’s plan for staying in the presidential palace and maybe even keeping his name in the race to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader when the day comes? The answer is pretty obvious: He accepts that his presidential mandate is what Khamenei wants it to be. No more and no less. That was Raisi’s modus operandi in his first year in office, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program and a senior fellow in the Frontier Europe Initiative at the Middle East Institute in Washington. His most recent book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

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