Deep-Seated Entanglements

The Web of Iranian Leadership Can Be Negotiated, Not Unraveled

By David E. Thaler and Alireza Nader

David Thaler is a RAND senior defense researcher with expertise in Iran and the Middle East. Alireza Nader is a RAND international policy analyst focusing on Iranian internal politics.

Initially, President Obama’s offer in March 2009 to engage in constructive dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran without preconditions appeared to alter the dynamic within the regime. Obama’s messages, and the change in U.S. policy that they represented, were front and center in the campaigns and debates leading up to the June 2009 Iranian presidential election. The new U.S. policy limited the ability of the Iranian government to portray the United States as a bogeyman bent on destabilizing the regime and to garner popular support through such rhetoric. Obama’s election to the U.S. presidency in 2008 had itself raised hopes among some Iranians, particularly the moderate and pragmatic segments of the Iranian elite, of an establishment of relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic.

However, the conservative factions in Iran remained wary of engaging the United States because such engagement could lead to stronger internal demands for political, economic, and social reforms. The disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 swung the balance of power in Iran back to the conservatives, confounding U.S. and international diplomatic efforts to engage with the country.

Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the U.S. ability to “read” the Iranian regime and to formulate appropriate policies has been hampered by a lack of access to the country and by the opacity of decisionmaking in Tehran. Given the difficulty in assessing Iranian political dynamics, U.S. leaders should avoid trying to manipulate the domestic politics of Iran and instead accept the need to deal with the government of the day as it stands. U.S. leaders should also recognize that dealing with Iran does not necessarily mean dealing with a unitary actor.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei


One week after his nation’s disputed presidential election of June 12, 2009, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a sermon in front of a picture of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during Friday prayers at the campus of Tehran University.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks with the media in Tehran on February 16, 2010. He said Iran is installing more-efficient centrifuges in its uranium enrichment facilities.

The chairman of both the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani


The chairman of both the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, delivers a speech to the assembly, a powerful clerical panel charged with choosing or dismissing Iran’s supreme leader, on February 23, 2010, in Tehran.

A Web Tossing in the Wind

The shifting political winds within Iran over the past year have highlighted the country’s extraordinarily complex political system. It is a system built on an intricate web of personalities, informal networks, and formal institutions.

A number of key individuals (including, first and foremost, the supreme leader) have dominated the political elite in Iran roughly since the 1979 revolution and certainly since the death of the father of the revolution and first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a decade later. These personalities draw on multiple networks of various commonalities — interleaved family, experiential, clerical, political, financial, and other relationships and interests — that serve as levers of patronage, wealth, mobilization, and dissent. The more powerful, influential, and well connected the individual leading an institution, the greater the weight the institution gains in policymaking and implementation. It is the combination of key personalities, networks, and institutions — not any one of these elements alone — that defines the political system of the Islamic Republic.

Factional competition and informal maneuvering have trumped the formal processes of policymaking.

Typically, factional competition and informal maneuvering have trumped the formal processes of policymaking since the 1979 revolution. The 2009 election and its aftermath demonstrated the power of these informal lines of influence, with Ahmadinejad’s faction prevailing through the machinations of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

But the web remains in flux. Previously a consensus- driven system with the supreme leader acting as an arbiter above the factional fray, Iran seems to be moving toward a more authoritarian system in which the supreme leader and his inner circle of advisers and senior members of the IRGC make key decisions. Today’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 70, however, and rumors have surfaced about his deteriorating health. Given these cross-currents, U.S. leaders will need to monitor three determinants of Iran’s future direction: the evolving role of the IRGC, the relationship between the older and younger generations of leaders, and the succession of the next supreme leader, who is appointed for life.

Gridlock as the Norm

The convoluted nature of the Iranian government is partly the result of Iran’s history with the United States. The 1953 Anglo-American coup that ousted Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and returned Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to power cemented a perception in Iran of the United States as the successor to British imperial rule. This perception is still an important factor in shaping and driving Iran’s strategic culture and worldview. To this day, the Islamic Republic views the United States as its main adversary and existential threat.

After leading the revolution that brought down the shah in the spring of 1979, Khomeini sought to consolidate his power. He and those who supported him were keenly aware of Iran’s experiences with foreign domination of the country’s internal politics. In response, an impenetrable and complicated system of overlapping authorities emerged. The result has been termed a state of “suspended equilibrium” that has taken the shape of a peculiarly Iranian style of checks and balances, ensuring that no one faction becomes so dominant as to challenge the supreme leader or to gain ultimate power within the system.

The supreme leader sits atop Iran’s formal power structure (see the figure). He is appointed by the 86 senior clerics who constitute the Assembly of Experts. The president is ostensibly the second-highest-ranking official. According to the constitution, he is elected by popular vote; however, all presidential candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council, which is composed of 12 appointed jurists, both clerical and lay. In fact, the Guardian Council also approves the candidates for the Assembly of Experts, which appoints the supreme leader. The Guardian Council embodies the duality of theocracy and republicanism in Iran.

On Purpose, the Iranian Constitution Distributes Power Across an Interlocking Web of Overlapping Authorities

On Purpose, the Iranian Constitution Distributes Power Across an Interlocking Web of Overlapping Authorities

SOURCE: Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads, 2010.

But these formal institutions serve merely as a playing field for the more influential informal processes of politics and decisionmaking. For instance, Khamenei holds the most powerful and influential position in Iran. His power derives from his own broad networks of representatives, appointees, and confidantes; his role as commander-in-chief; and his position as supreme leader. However, lacking the iconic status and charisma of Khomeini, Khamenei must balance a multitude of competing interests to ensure that no single faction or group becomes so dominant that it threatens his power and prerogatives. This means perpetuating a relatively dysfunctional political system that tends toward stasis.

The overlapping and factional nature of the regime is a source of its very stability and survival. At the same time, it is a recipe for gridlock because the multiple power centers tend to neutralize one another. Paralysis is normal, innovation abnormal; the lowest common denominator often rules. A characteristic of such a rigid and immobile system is the prevalence of negative power: The power to block is widely dispersed, but the power to initiate is scarce.

Paralysis is normal, innovation abnormal.

But as Iran’s conservative elites, including those of the IRGC, have expanded their dominance over state institutions and resources, the traditional equilibrium among Iran’s political factions has eroded. Iran’s 2009 election and its aftermath appear to have accelerated this erosion, prompting reformist and even conservative fears of an ongoing militarization of Iranian politics.

Foreign Policy as a Domestic Tool

Because the competition among Iranian elites is as much about power as about principles, foreign policy is often used to bolster domestic stature or to weaken factional rivals. Rivals can be discredited for endangering the system and for “selling out” revolutionary precepts.

Ahmadinejad, for example, has ushered in the rise of a “principlist” government in Tehran (principlists advocate a return to the “pure” principles of the revolutionary era). The principlists have used foreign policy to paint their reformist and pragmatic conservative rivals as weak, defeatist, and insufficiently revolutionary. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad has posed as the leader of Iran’s resistance against so-called arrogant outside powers (especially the United States) that seek to keep Iran down. This policy of provoking deliberate confrontation is rooted in a domestic calculation of benefit. The president has not been disappointed in the effects of his policy, having been openly supported by the supreme leader, who endorsed pro-Ahmadinejad candidates in the 2008 parliamentary elections and Ahmadinejad himself in the aftermath of the 2009 election.

Factional competition has driven several foreign policy developments within the Islamic Republic, notably those pertaining to its Middle East policy, its nuclear program, and its relations with the United States. A prime example of behind-the-scenes competition emerged in early 2002 following the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Under the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Iran was cooperating with U.S.-led international efforts in Bonn to form a successor regime in Kabul. By all accounts, this cooperation was critical to the success of these efforts. Moreover, Iranian diplomats expressed interest in cooperating with the United States on issues other than Afghanistan. A breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations appeared possible.

Then, in January 2002, Israeli vessels in the Red Sea captured the Karine-A, a merchant ship loaded with 50 tons of weapons destined for the Palestinian Authority. It was discovered that Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, had funded the purchase of the weapons — and that the weapons had been loaded onto the ship on Iran’s Kish Island. Days later, U.S. President George W. Bush added Iran to the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address.

The Karine-A incident appears to be a clear example of one faction in the Iranian elite undermining the policy of a competing faction.

In the words of Ali Ansari, a leading expert on Iran, it was “remarkable that a regime hitherto experienced in shipping arms and munitions overseas should choose to do this particular delivery via slow boat journey around the Arabian Peninsula.” To us, the Karine-A incident appears to be a clear example of one faction in the Iranian elite — whose interest lay in averting U.S.-Iranian rapprochement — undermining the policy of a competing faction. Given the distrust of the United States by Khamenei, one could speculate that he had prior knowledge of the shipment or even instigated the crisis in an effort to forestall a potential imbalance among internal factions.

The shifts in Iranian nuclear policy are epitomized by two phases of recent Iranian history associated with two competing factions: the Khatami period (1997–2005) and the Ahmadinejad period (2005–present). During the first period, a reformist government responded to the nuclear crisis by embracing diplomacy and engagement with the United States but found itself under fire from domestic critics who demanded that Iran make fewer concessions and take a tougher stand. During the second period, a principlist government suspicious of diplomacy has adopted a policy of resistance by largely ignoring the United Nations Security Council and its resolutions.

The principlists have increasingly appropriated the nuclear issue for their domestic, partisan advantage. Having accused the previous Iranian nuclear negotiators of retreat and compromise, Ahmadinejad has since attributed the Security Council’s failure to stop Iran’s enrichment program to his own administration’s steadfastness. Although the reformists and the pragmatic conservatives do not necessarily view the nuclear program as a zero-sum game, the principlists fear that compromise on this issue represents a generalized retreat in the face of Western pressure — a retreat that would entail a loss of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad has also exploited a nuclear populism to divert attention from Iran’s growing economic woes.

Two clerics stand at left as Iran's Jamaran guided-missile destroyer and navy members prepare for an exercise in the Persian Gulf.


Two clerics stand at left as Iran’s Jamaran guided-missile destroyer and navy members prepare for an exercise in the Persian Gulf on February 21, 2010. Two days earlier, Iran launched the Jamaran, the country’s first domestically built destroyer, calling it a major technological leap for its naval industries.

Khamenei and the Guard Corps

In light of Khamenei’s clear support of Ahmadinejad and the president’s allies during the 2009 election — and the apparently widespread electoral fraud that occurred — the supreme leader can no longer claim to be above factional politics. In fact, he has overseen the marginalization of key personalities and factions that heretofore had served to balance the more conservative elements among the elite. While this course may strengthen his personal position in the near term, it also sows the seeds for weakening the position of supreme leader in the longer term.

The IRGC has conspired with Khamenei to ensure conservative dominance and to upset the balance in Iranian politics. In recent years, the IRGC has acquired all the trappings of a state within a state, accountable only to the supreme leader and increasingly present or even dominant in many facets of society. Today, the IRGC oversees or owns important interests in numerous sectors of the Iranian economy, including oil, construction, agriculture, mining, transportation, defense, and imports and exports. It has retained its primary role as defender of the revolution, a role that continues to be defined expansively, especially in the context of domestic politics. This role includes active, often clandestine, involvement in other states in the region in support of militias and terrorist groups and, increasingly, participation in the domestic politics of these regional states. The rise of the IRGC has also been accompanied by the emergence of core security issues at the forefront of Iranian policy debates.

The degree to which Khamenei controls the IRGC’s foreign and domestic activities remains unclear. One can rightly point to the fact that Khamenei is commander-in-chief and has the power to appoint and to fire the IRGC’s leadership, both of which suggest top-down control of IRGC activities. The reality is probably less black and white. As suggested by Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the relationship between Khamenei and the IRGC is “increasingly symbiotic, politically expedient for the Leader and economically expedient for the Guards.”

Iran’s Politics and Policymaking

The opaque nature of decisionmaking in Tehran, the parallel institutions, the bifurcation of the government between elected and appointed officials, the informal networks, the undercurrents of factional maneuvering — all lead the analyst to look for some key to unlock the secrets of regime policymaking. That such a key exists appears doubtful. The institutional duplication, informal politics, factional disputes, and resulting stalemate preclude coherent, forward-looking policies.

Consultation in Iranian decisionmaking is not a process that can be mapped in advance. Questions of whom to consult, when, and on what issues are decided in an ad hoc manner depending on the subject matter and the supreme leader’s proclivities, preferences, and whims. The only pattern is that there is no pattern. Consequently, the coalescence of major players on a given decision is virtually impossible to verify or predict, especially at a distance.

The only pattern is that there is no pattern.

The principlist policies of nonengagement and defiance suit the current supreme leader but pose a challenge to the Obama administration’s efforts to open a dialogue with the regime. A different supreme leader, working with a like-minded Iranian president, could shift the country’s foreign policies. However, this would entail taking on the Iranian constituencies and interest groups that benefit from the status quo. For now, the Iranian policy of defiance is perceived by the country’s principlist leaders to have been successful and not to be in need of serious adjustment.

But there are three key political trends in Iran to watch. The first is the expanding role of the IRGC, which also manages key nuclear facilities. An energized, adventurous, nuclear-armed IRGC with a weak supreme leader as commander-in-chief could propel Iran toward a more-militarized future, posing a greater threat to U.S. regional interests. Alternatively, an increased focus on economic power could lead the IRGC to become greedy and bloated, less flexible, and more risk averse. Such a business orientation could cause the IRGC to see greater utility in regional stability and in reduced tensions with the United States and the West.

A second trend to watch over the next few years is the evolving relationship between the older generation of leaders, who helped Khomeini overthrow the shah and establish the Islamic Republic in 1979, and a younger cohort of lay leaders (with some clerical allies) who were shaped primarily by the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and are less beholden to the establishment.

Third, the next supreme leader will be a primary determinant of how the other two trends evolve. A strong leader could uphold the status quo or steer the country toward gradual change, whereas a weak leader could be exploited or dominated by other power centers, such as the IRGC. In the latter case, the very nature of the Islamic Republic could change drastically and in potentially destabilizing ways. This is especially worrisome given the increasing militarization of Iranian politics. In our view, the internal discussions and activities surrounding the succession of the supreme leader constitute the most important development for U.S. and Western policymakers and analysts to watch as a harbinger of the future direction of the Islamic Republic.

A bust of Iranian student Neda Agha Soltan, a student killed during election protests in Tehran in 2009.


A bust of Iranian student Neda Agha Soltan, a student killed during election protests in Tehran in 2009, stands in front of a banner bearing pictures of what Iranian opposition groups say are victims of the Iranian regime. The display appeared during a demonstration outside the Italian Parliament, in Rome, on February 11, 2010, marking the 31st anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The writing on the banner reads in Italian: “Iran: Human Rights Hanged.”

The Challenge for U.S. Leaders

The United States is the key antagonist and source of policy debate and formulation in the Islamic Republic. One could even submit that the Iranian elite are obsessed with U.S. statements, actions, and reactions and that perceptions of potential U.S. responses drive the major foreign and, at times, domestic policy decisions. In fact, Washington’s responses to posturing from Tehran can exaggerate the importance of an issue beyond its inherent relevance, and Iranian factions use this phenomenon to their advantage. It is therefore incumbent on U.S. policymakers to couch their communications with and about Iran in ways that bear in mind how such statements might be perceived in Tehran (and by whom).

The ability of the United States to determine the effects of its efforts to shore up the moderates in Iran is extremely limited, and the strategy could backfire if it undermines the very people it seeks to support. An example of a cautious approach was Obama’s initial hesitation to harshly criticize the Iranian government’s crackdown on protesters in the wake of the 2009 election. Such criticism could have been characterized as U.S. interference and used against reformists by the hard-liners.

Normal relations with the United States would be a radical departure for Iran’s elites, who would need to perceive such relations as necessary for both Iran (the survival of the Islamic Revolution) and their own power and influence. Increased engagement with the United States and the West would create domestic winners and losers, the latter of whom would not necessarily acquiesce willingly, even if the supreme leader fully supported such engagement. There are entrenched political, economic, social, and religious interests that see great merit in the status quo and a great threat in opening Iran to the United States. Therefore, the United States should expect that powerful interest groups in Iran will attempt to torpedo efforts toward a rapprochement between the two countries, and the United States should plan accordingly.

The competing government structures and power centers in Iran also make U.S. negotiations with the Islamic Republic unusually difficult. Iranian negotiators may or may not have the authority to reach agreements. Ensuring that Washington is dealing with the right representatives of the Iranian regime will be a critical task for any U.S. negotiating team. Iranian negotiators may be looking over their shoulders at decisionmakers in Tehran, as was the case during nuclear negotiations in the waning months of the Khatami administration. Or the Iranian negotiators may reflect contradictions and indecision within the regime. These difficulties do not mean that negotiations on nuclear or other issues are not worthwhile. But it is crucial for the United States to enter such discussions with a nuanced view of the complex system of government and politics that the Iranian interlocutors across the negotiating table represent. square

Related Reading

Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics, David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, Frederic Wehrey, RAND/MG-878-OSD, 2010, 168 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4773-1.