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Friday, 4 May, 2001, 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK
Analysis: Khatami vs Khamenei
Supporters of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami
President Khatami is still Iran's most popular politician
By BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala

The relationship between President Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is at the very heart of Iran's political struggle between the reformers and hardliners.

The two men lead these two opposed camps, and the way in which they handle their relationship could decide whether Iran's gradual development into an Islamic democracy is peaceful or not.

The Supreme Leader's wishes supersede the will of the Iranian people, even when this is expressed through popular election

At times, the calls for reform are so loud in Iran as to seem politically and, in the longer term, historically undeniable. At other times the hardliners seem to have such a strong grip on power and state institutions that the reformist movement can seem fragile and temporary.

The achievements of the early years of Mr Khatami's presidency, the birth of an outspoken press and the election of a pro-reform parliament, seem a very long way off now.

Both the parliament and the press have been almost utterly cowed, and the hardline judiciary, and intelligence and security services seem absolutely in control.

Though this opposition suggests the two leaders are pitted against each other in some kind of drawn out battle, the relationship between Mr Khamenei and Mr Khatami has elements of co-operation and co-dependence.

Constitutional arrangement

Constitutionally, Mr Khamenei is without question the highest political and spiritual authority in Iran.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
The Iranian constitution gives Ayatollah Khamenei supreme political and spiritual power
His authority derives from a concept known as Velayati Faqih [rule by expert jurist], under which Mr Khamenei's word overrides the authority of all other leaders or bodies.

The Supreme Leader's wishes also supersede the will of the Iranian people, even when this is expressed through popular election.

Mr Khamenei's power manifests itself in his control of the main state institutions - the armed forces, the security services, the judiciary, the clergy, the Council of Guardians, the radio and television.

Uneven struggle

The attempts of the reformist parliament to stop the judiciary's clampdown on the press is an instructive illustration of the uneven relationship between Mr Khatami and Mr Khamenei.

The two men may have different views on the direction that Iran should take, but in many ways they need each other to achieve their goals

In early August last year, the parliament began debating reform of the press laws under which the judiciary was decimating the fledgling liberal media. Mr Khamenei sent a letter to the parliament demanding that the debate stop.

This caused outrage in parliament and a confrontation between Mr Khamenei and the legislature looked unavoidable.

President Khatami intervened to avoid this and prevailed on the parliament to put off the debate.

The next day, thousands of right-wing activists noisily demonstrated outside parliament in support of Mr Khamenei's demand for an end to the debate on the press law.

Some analysts have argued that Mr Khatami's intervention was one of his great political achievements. He successfully reined in some of his more outspoken supporters, and may have saved the parliament from right-wing militias looking for an excuse to storm the building.


Whatever their differences, Mr Khatami and Mr Khamenei, are both dedicated to protecting Iran's Islamic republic.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami
President Khatami was powerless to stop the judiciary decimating the liberal press
The two men may have different views on the direction that Iran should take, but in many ways they need each other to achieve their goals.

Both Mr Khamenei and Mr Khatami are concerned by the radicalisation on both ends of the spectrum, and the potential for political violence which often close to the surface in Iran.

Because of his 1997 election victory, and his continuing popularity, Mr Khatami is the Iranian politician with the strongest claim to having a popular mandate.

Popular will

There are clear signs that Mr Khamenei understands this, and is unwilling to allow Mr Khatami, a popular elected leader, to be undermined too far.

Mr Khatami's more radical supporters... argue that the president is acting as a safety valve for the hardliners at home, and their acceptable face abroad

The danger is that Iranians who feel their democratically expressed will is being treated with contempt will in turn start treating the institutions and authority of the state with contempt.

From time to time, Mr Khamenei has found it necessary to cut down to size and distance himself from the more hardline clerics.

One such cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazidi, argued earlier this year that religious government does not need popular support or elections to achieve legitimacy.

This rejection of Iran's Islamic democracy was heavily criticised in a newspaper closely linked to the Supreme Leader.

Frustrated supporters

This relationship of co-dependency may be more compromising for the president than for the Supreme Leader.

The Iranian parliament in session
The election of a pro-reform parliament brought great hope for change, but these hopes have been disappointed
Many of Mr Khatami's more radical, and frustrated, supporters say he has achieved nothing in his first term.

They argue that the president is acting as a safety valve for the hardliners at home, and their acceptable face abroad.

Mr Khatami's insistence that he and the reformists must be realistic and patient about the speed of change may mean that the backing the president receives in June's election will be much reduced compared to 1997.

This too, analysts say, would play into the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the hardliners.

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