Khamenei has relied on loyalists in the Guardian Council to manipulate the candidate field to ensure that no official with the potential to challenge him and the course he has charted for the Islamic Republic can come to power through elections. Rouhani, while purporting to break with the anti-Western extremism of his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, stayed true to his roots as a conservative cleric committed to the revolutionary system of government. The cleric was permitted to stand for election twice because of this loyalty. He made piecemeal concessions in the nuclear negotiations amid mounting international pressures, but the agreement produced with the P5+1 did not alter the course of the Islamic Republic.
The Supreme Leader, while initially showing signs of support for the agreement and later distancing himself from it, consistently rejected the prospects of additional concessions and has shown no interest in rejoining the accord, particularly as he prioritizes relations with the East. The fundamental hostility which had defined U.S.-Iranian relations since the founding of the Islamic Republic remained firmly rooted in Iran’s leadership before, during, and after the JCPOA took effect. Iran’s brutal suppression of recurrent domestic anti-regime protest movements, its materiel support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, and its rapid acceleration of the nuclear program have made prospects for mutual reentry into the JCPOA dimmer than ever. Still, the Biden Administration continues to pursue diplomacy even if it is not geared toward reviving the 2015 version of the JCPOA.
As Supreme Leader, Khamenei has sought to preserve the foundations of the Islamic Revolution and secure his legacy. His experiments with more moderate and pragmatic officials in the elected state were never a reflection of his preferences for a more open society, but rather a response, however, limited, to the demands of the Iranian people, which are evermore at odds with the founding principles and values of the Iranian Revolution. Nearing the end of his career, all levers of power, from the Guardian Council to state-run media enterprises and economic foundations, have deliberately been transferred to hardliners to ensure a smooth Supreme Leadership transition and the avoidance of a legitimacy crisis, which is more likely if there are rifts among the political elite. At 84, Khamenei has had cancer and is rumored to have suffered a relapse. Given his age, it is a distinct possibility that Khamenei will pass away during the presidential tenure of Raisi, especially if Raisi is reelected to a second term, which has been the case for every president under Khamenei’s Supreme Leadership.
Khamenei’s political aspiration has been geared toward purging opposition figures who prefer more secular policies and who favor empowering the elected state. His office operates as the primary mechanism for coordinating a continuing revolutionary struggle against any and all pressures directed at the regime’s ideological underpinning: Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih.