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Abstract

The Islamic Republic of Iran poses serious challenges to U.S. interests in the Middle East, and its nuclear program continues to worry the international community. The presidential election of June 2009 that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power and led to broad protests and a government crackdown presents yet another cause for U.S. concern. Yet the U.S. ability to “read” the Iranian regime and formulate appropriate policies has been handicapped by both a lack of access to the country and the opacity of decisionmaking in Tehran. To help analysts better understand the Iranian political system, the authors describe

  • Iranian strategic culture, including the perceptions that drive state behavior
  • the informal networks, formal government institutions, and personalities that influence decisionmaking in the Islamic Republic
  • the impact of elite behavior on Iranian policy formulation and execution
  • factionalism, emerging fissures within the current regime, and other key trends.

The authors observe that it is the combination of key personalities, networks based on a number of commonalities, and institutions — not any one of these elements alone — that defines the complex political system of the Islamic Republic. Factional competition and informal, back-channel maneuvering trump the formal processes for policymaking. The Supreme Leader retains the most power, but he is not omnipotent in the highly dynamic landscape of Iranian power politics. The evolving role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the vulnerability of the elite “old guard” to challenge, and the succession of the next Supreme Leader are key determinants of Iran's future direction. In light of complexities in the Iranian system, U.S. policymakers should avoid trying to leverage the domestic politics of Iran and instead accept the need to deal with the government of the day as it stands. Moreover, they must take as an article of faith that dealing with Iran does not necessarily mean dealing with a unitary actor due to the competing power centers in the Islamic Republic.

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Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction: Leadership Dynamics in the Islamic Republic of Iran

  • Chapter Two

    Assertiveness and Caution in Iranian Strategic Culture

  • Chapter Three

    Formal Structures of the Islamic Republic

  • Chapter Four

    Factionalism and the Primacy of Informal Networks

  • Chapter Five

    The Nexus of Domestic Politics and Policymaking in Iran

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusion: Power and Politics in the Islamic Republic

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted in the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation monograph series. RAND monographs present major research findings that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND monographs undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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