With Iran’s presidential elections days away, pundits and decision-makers alike have been following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s every move and remark in search of clues over which candidate he favors. The implicit assumption is that the elections are ultimately decided by one vote only—that of Ayatollah Khamenei. In reality, the supreme leader has far less control over elections than what is popularly believed. To the extent that there is a kingmaker in the Iranian elections, it’s not Khamenei but his reformist rival, former President Mohammad Khatami, whose endorsement carries the greatest weight.
Despite the near limitless powers ascribed to Khamenei, the historical record is clear: the antiestablishment vote has tended to dominate Iranian elections. Since Khamenei symbolizes the establishment, the Iranian electorate tends to reject the candidates that they perceive have his backing. In 1997, the Majlis Speaker, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, was presumed to be favored by Khamenei, leading many to believe he was a shoo-in for the presidency. But instead, the Iranian people stunned the world—and Khamenei—by throwing their support behind a then largely unknown reformist candidate: Khatami.
Eight years later, another unknown candidate by the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the presumed