One of the many contradictions of the Iranian system is that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are banned, but still widely used — including, over the past couple of years, by top government officials responsible for the ban. One of the most prolific social media users has actually been the supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — or his staff, anyway.
On Thursday, Khamenei's Instagram account posted this photo of the supreme leader back before his supreme leadering days. Like many of the older photos posted to the account, yes. it's a piece of propaganda. But if you look past that it's also a fascinating little glimpse of Iranian history, in part because it gets at another, much deeper contradiction of the country's political system, one so sensitive that the Brooking Institution's Hanif Kashani wondered if posting it was a "fail" by Khamenei's social media people. Here's the photo:
Here's what's significant about this photo: it shows current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is center back row with the dark beard, alongside then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini and two other Iranian political figures who have since come to lead political camps that are deeply at odds within one another.
Back far-left is Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was Iran's conservative but pragmatic president for most of the 1990s, and used to be a close associate of Khamenei's. The two have since become bitterly divided; in 2012, two of Rafsanjani's children were arrested and in 2013 Khamenei barred Rafsanjani from running in the presidential election. Middle-row on the left, the man in profile, is Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist who ran for president in the 2009 election that led to nationwide "green movement" protests in his support; Mousavi has since been under strict house arrest and barred from speaking to media.
The American equivalent might be a grainy old photo of young Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul all hanging out smiling with Ronald Reagan, only if Obama had later gone on to place Rand Paul under house arrest and formally bar Newt Gingrich from running for office.
And that's what's so interesting about this photo: it shows just how deeply divided Iranian politics have become in the 25 years since founding leader Khomeini died and Khamenei took over. Reformists like Mousavi (who was prime minister in the 1980s) and pragmatists like Rafsanjani used to coexist alongside hard-liners like Khomeini within the government. Now things are much more tense, the competition between political camps is much more poisonous.
It also reveals something about Khamenei. Though he has come to present himself as an anti-American hard-liner as Khomeini was, pushing away reformists, during the first years of his rule as supreme leader in the 1990s he was much more of a pragmatist. He even supported then-president Rafsanjani on his signature foreign policy issue: rapprochement with the United States. Under domestic pressure from Tehran's hard-liners, Khamenei shifted course in the mid-90s and turned against that policy. But the fact that he was able to change course helps explain why he allowed moderate Hassan Rouhani to become president last year and has seemingly backed his efforts at a nuclear deal with the United States.