Leadership Dynamics Behind Iranian Policy Formulation

For Release

January 5, 2010

U.S. policymakers should take a nuanced view of Iran's complex system of government and politics when crafting foreign policy decisions about the Islamic Republic, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The 2009 Iranian presidential election was a watershed event in the Islamic Republic's history that has altered elite relationships and solidified the position of the Islamist right and the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian politics. But U.S. policymakers are hampered in their ability to "read" the regime by the lack of access to Iran by U.S. diplomats and other citizens, a result of there having been no official diplomatic relations between the two nations since 1980. Researchers say another contributing factor is that the decisionmaking process in Iran is extremely convoluted, informal and opaque to much of the outside world.

The RAND study explores the "strategic culture" in Iran, which informs and helps shape Iranian policy decisions, relying upon interviews with U.S. and foreign-based Iran experts, reviews of official statements by key Iranian leaders and analysis of Persian-language sources. The study pays particular attention to the emerging fissures within the regime, competing centers of power and the importance of informal networks—a particularly important yet not well-understood hallmark of the Iranian system.

"Decisionmaking in Iran is far from a transparent process," said David Thaler, lead author of the study and a senior defense research analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "You have a peculiarly Iranian system of checks and balances where multiple different factions work against each other to keep any one faction from gaining too much power, but events since the Iranian election have altered the factional balance."

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the most powerful and influential leader in Iran, but his power is not absolute, Thaler said. The political system remains split between a religious theocracy—as represented by the Supreme Leader—and a popularly elected president and legislature. In Iran, informal systems are often more powerful than the formal ones. The very informality of the system makes the examination of Iranian decisionmaking exceedingly difficult because back-channel maneuvering and bargaining are, by nature, hidden from public view.

In the three decades since the Iranian Revolution, different power centers have attained dominance for periods of time. At first, the clerics had the most power, but in the 1990s, the bonyads—foundations that serve as independent economic entities and patronage networks unaccountable to the state—were the dominant economic players, although the clerics continued to have considerable political influence.

During the past decade, however, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has gained primacy, using the increased Iranian emphasis on security issues as a political and economic lever.

"The June 2009 presidential election further empowered the Revolutionary Guards and has fueled reformist and even conservative fears of a creeping militarization of Iranian politics and society," said Alireza Nader, a study co-author and a RAND international policy analyst.

The study identifies three emerging trends to watch in Iran, all of which have been affected by the election:

  • The trajectory of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and whether it will continue to grow in power or decline
  • The relationship between the "old guard" that overthrew the Shah and the post-revolutionary cohort of leaders
  • Political maneuvering to determine who will be the next Supreme Leader after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies.

Because Iranian decision makers closely follow U.S. official statements, the study also recommends that U.S. policymakers take great care to couch their communications with and about Iran in ways that are nuanced and take into consideration how their statements might be perceived in Tehran and by whom. Focusing on foreign policy—and the United States in particular—is often a convenient way for the regime to draw attention from bread-and-butter domestic issues that are problematic in Iran, such as the economy.

Factional competition often plays a defining factor in Iranian policymaking, with each group trying to influence the policy narrative. Policymakers also should keep in mind that they are not dealing with a single actor, and that Iran's complex political system means that anything approaching normal relations with Iran would be a radical departure for Iran's elites.

The study, "Mullahs, Guards and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics," can be found at www.rand.org. Other authors are Charlotte Lynch, and Frederic Wehrey, both of RAND; Shahram Chubin, an independent consultant; and Jerrold D. Green, formerly of RAND and now president and CEO of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense and conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the Intelligence Community.

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