TEHRAN, Iran — The perhaps most prominent of the grandsons of the founder of the Islamic Republic has lately adopted a new demeanor on the Iranian political stage. Although he is generally viewed as close to the Reformist camp, he has lately been sending signals that hint at his interest in the rival Principlist tent.
Seyyed Hassan Khomeini is widely seen as a protector of the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Although he has never run for elected office, he has generally supported Reformist candidates in their campaigns and has thus been the target of attacks from Principlists. However, this seems to have changed following the January death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Khomeini had registered as a candidate for the February 2016 Assembly of Experts elections, but was disqualified from running by the Guardian Council the month before the vote. The reaction of Principlist media to the disqualification was quite supportive and welcoming. Meanwhile, Rafsanjani had much criticism for the Guardian Council. On Feb. 1, 2016, Rafsanjani — who then served as chairman of the Expediency Council — harshly addressed the Guardian Council, saying, “You do not approve the eligibility [to run for office] of someone who is most like his ancestor, Imam Khomeini? Who has given you the right to judge [on this matter]?”
The Reformists were also very angry about the disqualification of Khomeini. At that point in time, they were trying hard to link Hassan Khomeini to the triumvirate of former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), ex-President Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and incumbent President Hassan Rouhani (2013-). Khomeini himself was quite supportive of this plan, and this contributed to his popularity in Reformist circles. But there is evidently more to this story. Having acted within these confines until Rafsanjani’s death, Khomeini has grown to become a different actor on the Iranian political stage, regardless of the very close ties between Khomeini and Rafsanjani.
One figure close to the family of Rafsanjani who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said, “Ayatollah Hashemi [Rafsanjani] considered Seyyed Hassan as his own child and tried hard to support him. Seyyed Hassan, who was a playmate of Mohsen Hashemi [the eldest son of Rafsanjani], had a similar view of Ayatollah Hashemi.” However, after the death of Rafsanjani, Khomeini was among those who tried to distance themselves from the Reformist camp. Although this does not exactly add up to direct opposition to the Rouhani administration or the Reformists, Khomeini has gained an increasingly conservative character.
Al-Monitor spoke with prominent University of Tehran professor Sadegh Zibakalam about the shift in perceptions of Khomeini’s politics, “I also feel that after the death of Ayatollah Hashemi [Rafsanjani], Hassan Khomeini has felt that he has no strong supporter and patron and has preferred to adopt a more conservative approach. He has distanced himself from the Reformists in order to provide [fewer] reasons for the conservatives to attack him.”
On Aug. 25, marking the end of the 12-year term of Principlist Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf as mayor of Tehran, Khomeini attended his valediction event and said the jubilant words, “Mr. Ghalibaf and I have spent many nights in disguise, roaming the poor neighborhoods of Tehran, where there were many drug addicts. In reality, Mr. Ghalibaf has seen the problems intimately and understands them. When someone understands a problem, he can best act to solve it as well, and the secret to Mr. Ghalibaf’s success is exactly the fact that he has understood these pains.”
This is while the Reformist and government media were attacking and criticizing the corruption in the Tehran City Council and Tehran municipality under Ghalibaf. This was the reason why the Reformists were upset that Khomeini attended the farewell ceremony for Qalibaf.
Zibakalam told Al-Monitor, “You have to consider that Seyyed Hassan does not have a strong political charisma like his grandfather, enabling him to be a political leader, and he is known as one of the less political of the clerics. He has always had a conservative soul and has preferred not to be on the front line of politics.”
But could this sort of behavior from Khomeini continue and provide the basis for his joining the conservative camp? One would find it hard to give a positive answer to this question, since Principlists and especially hard-line elements have often criticized him for his political stances. Indeed, the hard-liners have on several occasions interrupted his sermons on the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, preventing him from finishing his speeches. Among the latter are the June 2010 speech, in which hard-line slogans were so aggressive that Khomeini left his speech halfway through, or in June 2015, when the actions of the hard-liners forced him to have to ask the audience to allow him to finish his words.
But one new development was the fact that he did not deliver a sermon on the anniversary of the death of his grandfather this past June. While he would usually deliver a brief speech before Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s sermon at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, this time he decided not to speak. The reason for this move is not clear. Was he worried about the actions of the hard-liners and their possible interruption of his speech? Or was it his own changing political attitude and becoming more conservative? Whatever the case, should one thus interpret his choice not speak at the June ceremony to mean his possible presence among the ranks of the Principlists?
Zibakalam told Al-Monitor, “No, since the Principlists would never forget his previous stances — those, which during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [2005-13], were markedly against the Principlists. Also, a portion of the hard-liners are so upset with Seyyed Hassan for his close relations with Ayatollah Hashemi [Rafsanjani] that the issue is not very easily resolved.” In either scenario, the Iranian political stage is now faced with a new Seyyed Hassan Khomeini: one who has decided to distance himself from the Reformists.