January 21, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1137

The Power Struggle Between Khamenei And His Camp And Rafsanjani And His Camp – Part XIV: President Rohani Undermines Khamenei's Authority, Calling For The Supremacy Of The Sovereignty Of The People Over The Rule Of The Jurisprudent, Hinting At Conces

January 21, 2015 | By A. Savyon, Yossi Mansharof, and U. Kafash*
Iran, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1137


In recent weeks, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani have traded blows and insults in the media on issues of policy and ideology, to the point of challenging one another's authority to rule. In a speech in early January 2015, Rohani called for a referendum on social, political, economic and cultural issues; by doing so, he challenged the legitimacy of Khamenei's rule.

Three days later, Khamenei responded by ordering Rohani to obey his political and economic directives - continuing the policy of hostility and distrust towards the U.S., making no concessions in the nuclear negotiations, and reliance on Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to revive the country's economy - and to act according to these directives while demonstrating unity, lest he damage the national interest. Khamenei also reiterated his call to the pragmatic camp not to divide the Iranian people, not to create a public atmosphere that would undermine his ideological path, and not to give the public the false impression that economic improvement would result from Iranian dialogue with and concessions to the West; he also cautioned it to guard its tongue.

The exchange of blows continued in the days that followed: Responding to Khamenei's call for unity, Rohani said that merely preaching unity was not enough; two days later, Khamenei announced that the Prophet Muhammad had said that unity is a Muslim society's most pressing need.

Another three days passed, and Rohani reiterated[1] that the state and the government belonged to the people, and that accusations against a certain official that he was not serving the people would cast doubts upon his legitimacy.

Rohani's call for a referendum intensified the ideological head-on collision between the two camps on the issue of the basis of the regime's sovereignty. The position of Rohani, elected in 2013 by a 50.3% majority,[2] and his call for a referendum, reflects the position of the pragmatic camp, which stresses the supremacy of the principle of the sovereignty of the people over decisions by the rule of the jurisprudent (i.e. the supreme leader) whose authority comes from God. The leaders of the pragmatic camp, especially Expediency Council head Hashemi Rafsanjani and his prot├®g├® Rohani, have in recent months repeatedly underlined the importance of the principle of the sovereignty of the people.

Rohani's call for a referendum sparked furious reactions from the ideological camp. Its spokesmen emphasized the damage that it does to Khamenei's status as the sovereign of the Islamic Republic regime, whose supreme authority takes precedence even over the sovereignty of the people. They presented Rohani as collaborating with a U.S. conspiracy to topple the regime of Iran's Islamic Revolution. Some went so far as to threaten that Rohani would be deposed like Iran's first post-Revolution president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who went into exile in 1981 after he expressed disagreement with the founder of the revolutionary regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, warned against dictatorship, and also clashed with the IRGC.

This report reviews the struggle between Iran's ideological and pragmatic camps over whether sovereignty in Iran emanates from the supreme leader or from the people; President Rohani's proposal for a referendum; and reactions by the ideological camp.

President Rohani Challenges Supreme Leader Khamenei

Rohani: "I Am Eager" For A Referendum

At a January 4, 2015 conference, Rohani challenged Khamenei in two areas: first, on the country's economy, and second, both politically and regarding sovereignty, emphasizing the supremacy of the people's will over that of the supreme leader.

Regarding the economy, Rohani called for harnessing Iran's foreign policy to its economic health and the welfare of the people - that is, adopting a moderate foreign and nuclear policy, while apparently hinting at agreeing to certain Western demands in exchange for a lifting of sanctions, which will serve Iran's national economy. This is the complete opposite of the principle set out by Khamenei, which is based on an "economy of the resistance" that relies on internal forces such as the IRGC - the ideological rival of the pragmatic camp - in order to improve Iran's economy.  

With regard to the political and sovereignty issue, Rohani proposed turning to the people in order to obtain an agreed-upon answer to fundamental political and economic questions impacting the situation in the country.

Rohani said: "As you all know, for several decades now in Iran, the economy has been serving [political] policy. [But] they say that this service cannot last forever and must one day cease. So let us decide today how long the economy must continue to serve policy. It is subservient to both domestic and foreign policy.

"For one decade, let us try the reverse - that is, [let us] place foreign policy at the service of the economy, and see how this impacts the people's situation, their lives, their livelihoods, and youth employment [levels]. Let us ask the people.

"One constitutional principle never implemented since day one [of the regime] is that of referenda on matters of crucial importance to the state - and as the one in charge of implementing the constitution, I am eager to try it once and for all. The constitution tells us that when it comes to important economic, social, political, and cultural issues, these must be put to a referendum, instead of passing a law in the Majlis [to deal with them]."[3] 

Khamenei To Rohani: Dividing The People Into Two Camps Is Against The National Interest

At a January 7, 2015 conference, Khamenei rebuked the leaders of the pragmatic camp, calling on them not to divide the people for any reason, to unite around the values of the Islamic Revolution, and not to trust the Western "enemy." He exhorted them to adhere to the ideological path that he had laid out for the revolutionary regime, the main principles of which are maintaining ideological hostility and distrust towards the West, in particular the U.S.; relying on domestic forces - the IRGC - to revive the country's economy (i.e. instead of foreign investment); prohibiting any concessions to the West in the nuclear negotiations; and implementing the economy of the resistance. He reiterated his demand that pragmatic camp's leaders toe the line of his ideological/ political/ cultural/ economic plan, even if no nuclear agreement is reached and the sanctions remain in place.

He also warned the pragmatic camp's leaders not to undermine him: "The reason for America's endless resentment, hostility and enmity towards the Iranian nation and the Islamic Revolution is the success of a country with virtues and strategic status such as Iran in getting out from under its control by means of the victory of the [Islamic] Revolution... The hostility of the arrogant front [the West, headed by the U.S.] towards the Iranian nation began after this victory.

"Let none think that the enemy will cease his evil and hostility. If you are negligent [in your vigilance] towards him and put your trust in him, he will find an opportunity to advance his interests in this country. But if you remain strong and vigilant and keep an eye on the enemy, he will have to stop displaying his hostility.

"The current pressure applied by the front of international greed against the Iranian nation stems from never-ending hostility. We still have far to go towards a full implementation of values such as social justice and Islamic morality. But, contrary to the imprudent claims of some in our country about the failure of the Iranian nation, this nation has [actually] reaped great successes by adhering to the path of [its] values.

"Why do you stupidly deny achievements that are acknowledged even by international scientific centers? Why do you utter false and unjustified statements, casting doubt on the proud way of the [Iranian] people, which even the enemy has been compelled to praise?

"Even in the early Islamic [period], not all values were realized, but the important point was that constant progress was made on the path towards realizing the goals. Today, the nation continues to proceed along this same path, with pride, strength, and steadfastness. Today, national unity and concord are the most pressing needs of the society and the state. Dividing the people into two camps - whatever the reason or the excuse - stands in contradiction to [our] national interests and values.

"Everyone has a duty to help the leaders and the government; we must focus on domestic [forces]. The members of the government must also realize that they can carry out their duty only by relying on the people and the forces within [Iran]. The sanctions have created difficulty for the state, but if the enemy sets up certain principles and values, for instance [that we must] forgo Islam, independence, and scientific progress as a condition for the removal [of the sanctions], obviously no [regime] official can accept this.

"Meanwhile, the enemy is not openly working against the [regime's] values. But should there be a retreat, it will do so. Therefore we must be vigilant and internalize the objective [behind] the enemy's proposals, declarations, and measures. The only way to limit the enemy's power to maneuver is to immunize Iran against the sanctions, and this is precisely what 'economy of the resistance' means. The main objective of the country's senior officials is to implement this important goal.

"Senior state and government officials must not pin their hopes on foreigners. They should realize that [even] minimal backtracking will induce the enemy to step up [its demands]. Therefore, it is necessary to think thoroughly, while relying on the nation and the internal forces to operate in a manner [that will ensure] that popular progress, prosperity, and wellbeing will not be damaged even if the enemy does not lift the sanctions. You must take the sanctions weapon out of the enemy's hands, because even if you pin your hopes on him, the sanctions will remain in force. For the Americans are most impudently saying that even if Iran compromises on the nuclear issue, the sanctions will not be totally and comprehensively lifted. In light of this, is it possible to have confidence in such an enemy?

"I do not oppose negotiations, but I believe that is necessary to place hope in true points of optimism, not imaginary ones. Government members should be careful not to create an atmosphere [of incitement]; they must refrain from making undesirable statements, and not create a division into two camps. They must try to properly rely on popular unity, faith and ambition. Dear Iran's future is absolutely luminous; with God's help, the pride-filled path of revolutionary values will continue, and the country's youth will see the day on which the neck-severing enemies [the Sunni militias] and the Western oppressors will be forced to surrender to them [the young people of Iran]."[4]

Leader Khamenei: Governments Must Take Practical Anti-Corruption Measures - Not Just Hold Anti-Corruption Conferences

Even prior to Rohani's referendum speech, Khamenei, in a December 8, 2014 letter to the Rohani government's anti-corruption conference held on that date, questioned the conference's effectiveness and called on regime officials to act, not just meet and talk: "I praise the fighting spirit of the gentlemen on the issue of the fight against corruption. But what miracle will this or other conferences produce? Is the situation unclear to you leaders of the three government authorities [i.e. the government, the Majlis, and the judiciary]? Taking note of the suitable and optimal situation of consensus and coordination among the relevant senior officials [regarding the undesirability of corruption], why is no fundamental and vigorous measure being taken so that all can see the tangible results? I expect the distinguished gentlemen to arrive at unhesitatingly thorough and practical decisions, and to implement them irrespective of whether they are arrived at via the conference or not. Best wishes for success."[5]

Rohani: Unity Cannot Be Forged By Talk Alone

At the January 7, 2015 28th International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran, Rohani answered Khamenei's repeated calls for unity in the Islamic world and Iran with a barb: "Unity in the Islamic world will not come about with rote repetition of the term. Conferences on Islamic unity are only a beginning for marching on the difficult path of unity and cohesion. These conferences alone cannot transform the schisms in the Islamic world into unity..."[6]

Khamenei Answers Rohani: Unity Is Society's Highest Need

In a January 9, 2015 address to senior regime officials, foreign ambassadors, and conferees at the International Islamic Unity Conference, Khamenei underlined the need for unity in Iran: "Unity is the great lesson of the last Prophet [Muhammad]. It is the salient need of the Islamic nation. Praises for the Prophet should not be limited to declarations and talk, but an effort should be made to actualize his messages of unity. This needs to head the priorities of the Islamic countries and nations."[7]

Rohani Responds: The State And The Government Belong To The People; Accusations Against A Certain Official That He Is Not Serving The People Will Cast Doubts Upon His Legitimacy

In a January 12, 2015 address, Rohani reiterated that the people are the source of the sovereignty of the regime, and warned that accusations against a certain official that he was not serving the people would cast doubts upon his legitimacy: "A fundamental point in which the people believe, and with God's help all senior officials also believe, is that the state and rule belong to the people, and that all senior officials without exception are public servants and draw their legitimacy from their service to the people. If, heaven forbid, a certain senior official is accused of not serving the people, his legitimacy will be doubted."[8]

The Pragmatic Camp Supports The Call For The Referendum

Rafsanjani: The Regime's Constitution Can Be Changed

In a January 2015 interview with Shahr-i Qanun magazine, Hashemi Rafsanjani called for amending the regime constitution and updating the legal situation for the people's benefit and in accordance with the times. In the interview, Rafsanjani did not mention the Velayat-e Faqih - the rule of the jurisprudent - but spoke of the people as sovereign, supporting his arguments with the example of the Koran and of the Prophet Muhammad himself, who opposed Islam's early laws. Rafsanjani said, "It must someday be decided unanimously that the state's legal structure should be amended. The state has many jurists who are knowledgeable about the secrets of the legal issues, and they could amend many issues."

Asked whether this applied also to the constitution, Rafsanjani replied: "Yes, because every law is written for the people on the basis of Islam's commandments. Did not the Prophet attack the early laws of Islam, for even now in the Koran there are nashih and mansuh verses [the principle of a later verse abrogating a previous verse] that were completed in light of the situation. At the start of the Islamic Revolution, a constitution was drafted based on the essential [principles] deemed appropriate by the Imam [Khomeini] and senior revolution officials, and it was ratified by a popular majority. That constitution was amended 10 years later by Khomeini, also with popular ratification. In other words, even the constitution can be changed by law. There is a clear way [to do so] that appears in the constitution itself.[9]

Rafsanjani Supporters Demand Referendum On The 2009 Unrest

Rafsanjani circles and supporters backed Rohani's call for a referendum. On January 4, 2015, Rafsanjani advisor Qodratollah Alikhani said: "In the entire world, it is customary to hold a referendum on political issues; therefore, it can be done in Iran as well. We do not want to hold a referendum on the regime's principles, namely the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic. Regarding a referendum on the nuclear negotiations, this is conditional upon the leader's [Khamenei's] opinion."[10]

Those of the reformists who support Rafsanjani advocated expanding the issue of a referendum and holding one on the issue of the unrest around the 2009 presidential election that was sparked by accusations of electoral fraud. In a January 5, 2015 article in Etemad, Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a senior official in the reformist party Mosharekat, proposed "a referendum on the 2009 events." He said that even half a decade later, this still-unresolved issue was the main arena for the rift and conflict within the country.[11]

Khamenei Circles Warn President Rohani: Calling For A Referendum Could Spell Your Removal

Ideological camp spokesmen also reacted to Rohani's referendum proposal, threatening him with removal as happened to Iran's first post-revolution president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr in 1981.

In a January 19, 2015 speech, Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar Base think tank that advises Khamenei, warned Rohani that his call for a referendum could lead to his removal: "[Rohani] is now following the path of Bani-Sadr, for it was Bani-Sadr who was the first to propose the referendum [idea]. He said that he had reached a dead end and in order to exit it, there had to be a referendum. What was Bani-Sadr's dead end? He wanted to do everything that he desired... Bani-Sadr presented his entire gang to the Majlis, but the Majlis did not confirm them. Ultimately, he said as follows: 'This is impossible, this is a dead end. What can be done? There must be a referendum in order to replace a [specific constitutional] principle.' The Imam [Khomeini] said [to him]: You yourself will be replaced. The [Islamic] Revolution will continue on its path. Now too, when the president [Rohani] has arrived, and he sees that he cannot operate within the existing laws, the first thing that pops into his head is a referendum. This is not the solution."[12]

On January 8, 2015, Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Alam Al-Hoda, who is close to Khamenei,  criticized Rohani, referring to circles that Khamenei had called "unwise' in a January 7 speech: "They [i.e. these circles] do not have the strength to identify the reality in which the state conducts itself, because they are identified with the West, and their hopes and thoughts are linked to there, and therefore the leader called them unwise...

"Most unfortunately, the referendum issue was brought up once [previously] by Bani-Sadr. The president [Rohani] should refrain from saying things that [do not evoke] fond popular memories.[13]

On January 6, 2015, journalist Javad Aghaei of the Iranian daily Vatan-e Emrooz which is affiliated with supporters of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, warned Rohani via Twitter that he would be deposed like Bani-Sadr if he promoted the referendum idea: "A reminder to Rohani who is attempting a breakthrough in order to avoid giving an answer to the people [with his] referendum proposal." Aghaie included in the tweet a photo of a 1981 newspaper report on Bani-Sadr's removal, from the Enqelab-e-Islami daily.[14]

Kayhan Warns Rohani: Do Not Collaborate With Traitorous Circles Within The Regime

On January 5, 2015 the daily Kayhan, which is affiliated with Khamenei, attacked Rohani, warned him not to collaborate with the West and with traitorous circles within Iran that sought to topple the regime, and urged him to acknowledge that his foreign and economic policy were mistaken and that they had actually aggravated Iran's situation. The daily claimed that with his ideological path, Rohani was actually arming the West against Iran and the Revolution: "The major political figures and publications that ignited the [student] riots in [Iran in] 1999 and 2009 [to protest presidential election fraud]... are now getting excited by Rohani's declarations, and welcome his statements with headlines such as 'Referendum,' 'Centrifuges Are Unconnected to Our Values,' and 'Foreign Policy Is Determined by Interests, Not On the Basis of Principles and Values'... Do they really respect Rohani? What do they expect from him?...

"The West concluded that in order to effectively damage the Revolution and the powerful Islamic regime [in Iran], it must co-opt intra-regime circles... in order to demand concessions or harm the regime. This idea and method were born during the Construction Era [i.e. during the 1989-1997 Rafsanjani cabinet] and were specifically actualized in the Reforms Era [i.e. during the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami].

"Projects such as a referendum, leaving the regime, entrenchment, and resignation, writing open letters, civil disobedience, and, subsequently, expressions of no confidence, fraud, and clouding the atmosphere in order to foment tension and disorder, are a product of the same process. The major enterprise prepared over the course of 20 years received a decisive popular blow in 2009, and now it hopes to co-opt... part of the current Rohani government so as to continue its parasitic existence...

"They [the collaborationist pro-West circles within Iran] asked the West to transform the tactic of direct support for them into indirect [support], so they provided the West with the sanctions idea, so that popular and Basij patience would run out and [they would oppose] the principles of Islam, the Revolution, and the regime. [They did this] so that later on they [i.e. the Rohani government and pragmatic camp spokesmen] could portray themselves as 'economic saviors' and 'mediators in the negotiations with the West for removing the sanctions and economic pressures.'

"In such a situation of major war, in which the enemy explicitly speaks of crippling economic pressure and silently toppling [the regime], the government and the president quite naturally cannot remain neutral. Either they spearhead the defense of the regime and the people, or, heaven forbid, they become tools for executing the gradual plans [concocted] by the fitna front together with the Western command center.

"With such partisanship, Rohani thought that it was possible to silence the fitna issue and the men of fitna; therefore, he sat with the chief [Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif's term for the U.S.] in order to remove the economic challenge [i.e. the sanctions]. But the basis of such thought could not survive for more than a year. On the one hand, the fitna elements view Rohani as a tool; on the other, the 'Great Satan [the U.S.] displayed its hostility, arrogance, and broken promises.

"As for the Rohani government, it is inaccurate to say that the economy has always served foreign policy, and that now foreign policy must serve the economy - at least with regard to the Rohani government. It was Rohani himself who invested massive and strategic capital in the negotiations with America, which actually caused economic damage. The dollar [exchange rate] rose from 3,275 touman to 3,600 touman, and the action of the American-Saudi Satan [i.e. the oil price cuts] in this 'ostensible confidence-building era' triggered a price drop to $57[/bbl]. Therefore, only two modes of action are open: continuing with the current path [of the pragmatic camp - i.e. engagement with the U.S.] at a heavy cost that runs into a dead end and abandons the resistance economy - or showing fortitude, acknowledging the mistake in the calculations and analyses, and abandoning the erroneous path on which Iran is in debt to the professional and greedy usurers in the West.

"Abandoning responsibility, creating an atmosphere of incitement, carrying out psychological operations, and kindling a conflict similar to what occurred at the economic conference [where Rohani called for a referendum] are worrisome occurrences because it absolves America from giving answers... and returns the ball to the court of Iran - which for the past year has paid the price of unilateral confidence-building with America.

"The attack on the Majlis, the Iranian broadcast authority, and the IRGC, and the criticism of the universities and religious seminaries, is intended to create passivity and to misdirect public opinion. If a mountain of such sloganeering and economic conferences will produce a molehill in the form of a referendum or the impression of a struggle between [revolutionary] principles and national interests, and an opportunity to serve the people will be squandered by preparing proxy war scenarios so [that the West] will capture one regime stronghold after the other - then it is necessary to say that we are greatly aiding America and the West at the expense of national interest, in order to promote their surprise attack. This is the equivalent of loading bullets into the enemy's ammunition clips."[15]

Basij Commander Naqdi Answers Rohani: Rohani And Rafsanjani Are False Revolutionaries Who "Believe The Struggle Should Be Stopped"

On January 5, 2015, Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi attacked pragmatic camp leaders Rohani and especially Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom he obliquely termed a false revolutionary who had chosen to stop struggling: "The bogus revolutionaries who have now elbowed their way into the Islamic Revolution [regime] in order to obtain top positions and wealth are now, in their old age [a reference to Hashemi Rafsanjani] talking about reconciliation in the name of logic and reason, and believe that the struggle should be stopped. They expect us to hand over to them control of our affairs... Our values are not centrifuges [as Rohani said].

"However, our values are destroying the palace of the Western oppressors and the American White House. Our values are exterminating the Zionists. Whoever disbelieves this value and tries to eradicate it in the name of reason should say sincerely that he is no revolutionary..."[16]

The Daily Javan: Will There Also Be A Referendum On Classified Issues That Are The Responsibility Of The National Security Council?

On January 5, 2015, the IRGC-affiliated daily Javan wrote that the Iranian constitution grants authority to the Majlis or to the supreme leader, but not to the president, to conduct referenda, and specifies that the president's authority is limited only to signing the results of such a referendum and presenting it to the public. The paper recalled that the reformists had used Rohani's call to conduct a referendum regarding the lifting of the house arrest of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and stated, "Can Rohani, who now also serves as head of the Supreme National Security Council [which decided on Karroubi's and Mousavi's house arrest] be expected to decide [also] via referendum for this council that deals with the most highly classified regime-related issues?

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is the region's only genuinely democratic regime in the region, and every year popular elections take place, with the 2013 presidential election the most recent... Therefore, Rohani's statement that the referendum principle has been disregarded for 36 years is somewhat removed from reality... Rohani's electoral rise is a form of referendum on the policy and approach of the various candidates. The people have had their say in the elections, and now the time has come for Rohani to deliver on what was promised [in the elections]. The people's main expectation from the government and from the president personally is that they solve the cost of living issue."[17]


*A. Savyon is director of the MEMRI Iranian Media Project; U. Kafash and Y. Mansharof are Research Fellows at MEMRI.


[1] See Inquiry & Analysis No.1136,  In Iran, Pragmatic Camp Faces Down Ideological Camp, January 5, 2015.

[2] This is in contrast to the 2009 presidential election, in which the results were contested and nationwide unrest resulted. 

[3] Website of the Iranian Presidency (, January 4, 2015.

[4] Khamenei bureau's official website,, January 7, 2015.

[5] The Supreme Leader's website,, December 8, 2014.

[6], January 7, 2015.

[7] The Supreme Leader's website,, January 9, 2015.

[8] Islamic Republic of Iran's Presidency Website,, January 12, 2015.

[9] Rafsanjani's website,, January 8, 2015. 

[10], January 4, 2015.

[11] Etemad (Iran), January 5, 2015.

[12] Entekhab (Iran), January 20, 2015.

[13], January 8, 2015.

[14], January 5, 2015, accessed January 19, 2015.

[15] Kayhan (Iran) January 5, 2015.

[16], (Iran), January 5, 2015.

[17] Javan (Iran), January 5, 2015.

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