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 favorite, the late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is considered one of the pillars of the revolutionary regime. But precisely because Rafsanjani was perceived as an embodiment of the establishment, the antiestablishment vote went to Ahmadinejad.
By the following election in 2009, Ahmadinejad’s role had reversed: while he enjoyed Khamenei’s backing, the former prime minister of Iran, Mir Hossein Mousavi, resurfaced after more than two decades of internal political exile, and was considered by voters as the antiestablishment candidate. But when the results were announced—Ahmadinejad had won with 62.6 percent of the vote and Mousavi only 34 percent—a record number of people took to the streets in protest, calling the vote fraudulent. A number of countries in the West voiced their concern about election irregularities, and domestic discontent would soon