The main function of elections in democracies is to enable the exercise of the people’s authority over the power of the state by establishing a government to implement policies which the public has voted for. Iran’s government, however, is bound by a constitution which states that a “supreme leader” has ultimate power over all branches of state and government. Elections of such a government, in effect, legitimize a regime which deprives people of their right to determine the state in which they live. In fact, what appears to be the “election” in Iran is only the shell of a political form; a remnant of the early years of the revolution and the first draft of the country’s constitution in which the sole source of legitimacy for any government was to be the people’s vote. But due to a power struggle between democratic and dictatorial interests, the constitution was rewritten to enshrine two competing sources of legitimacy: the people’s vote and the Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of the jurist or supreme leader). At the time, the position of supreme leader was filled by the undisputed leadership of Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini. Eventually, this constant tension between the two sources of legitimacy led Khomeini, at the end of his life, to tilt the balance of power further towards the supreme leader, thereby increasing his role in the constitution from a mainly observatory status to one of absolute power. The preservation of the regime became an ultimate and absolute duty, thus justifying virtually any act towards this end.
Soon after Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani orchestrated the appointment of Seyd Ali Khamenei to the position of supreme leader, despite the fact that Khamenei lacked even the minimum religious qualifications to fill such a position. It later emerged that Rafsanjani had forged a letter from Khomeini, with the French newspaper Le Monde publishing the findings of the two international experts who had exposed this. Rafsanjani’s calculation seems to have been based on a view that Khamenei, his friend of 30 years, would be too inept, too timid and too insecure in the position to do anything against Rafsanjani’s will. In effect, he wanted to place Khamenei as a figurehead, like the queen of the United Kingdom, while he would retain all power as president.
Initially, Rafsanjani’s calculation seemed correct: During his presidency, Khamenei was largely invisible and never dared to interfere in the affairs of his government. However, although sycophants around Rafsanjani were trying to portray him as the “General of Reconstruction,” eight years of devastating war with Iraq and inflation levels of more than 50 percent indicated a different reality. During this time, rising government corruption made him the wealthiest man in the country. And if this was not enough, his policy of systematically assassinating his opponents eventually earned him the nickname of “Godfather.”