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Iran Analysis: Supreme Leader = Machiavelli? (Sadjadpour)

Karim Sadjadpour writes for Foreign Policy magazine:

Nobody has ever confused Niccolo Machiavelli with an Islamic revolutionary -- but he certainly knew a thing or two about revolutions. The Florentine political philosopher watched his native city overthrow, restore, and then overthrow again the powerful Medici family. And it was in this hotbed of backstabbing clans, religious favoritism, and political power plays that Machiavelli sharpened his teeth. Ah, how he would have enjoyed the Tehran of today.

Half a millennium later, the author of The Prince and intellectual father of realpolitik has found one of his most impressive students in Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- another leader well-acquainted with the exercise of acquiring, and keeping, political power. Indeed, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose rise (and now his seeming fall from grace) was orchestrated by Khamenei, is the third Iranian head of state (preceded by Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami) whom Khamenei has outmaneuvered.

This is only the latest struggle from which Khamenei appears to have come out on top. For the last 22 years, he's woken up every morning and gone to bed every night believing not only that many of his own subjects want to unseat him, but also that the greatest superpower in the world is plotting his demise. In summer 2009, his worst fears became reality when millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad's tainted reelection. Some of them chanted slogans of "Death to Khamenei" and "Khamenei is an assassin, his rulership is annulled."

Yet after Oman's Sultan Qaboos and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi -- who continues to hang by a thread -- Khamenei is now the longest serving autocrat in the Middle East.

It is no accident that Khamenei has succeeded thus far in beating back the challenge posed by the Green Movement. Despite his Shiite pretentions, his ruling ideology is more Machiavelli than martyrdom. It's a fact that Machiavelli himself -- who trudged around Italy with papal armies, marveling at the combination of military might and religious authority -- would have observed with a knowing smile.

Throughout Khamenei's rule, he has held to five basic tenets that reflect the philosophy of statecraft -- and stagecraft -- embodied in Machiavelli's famous treatise.

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