The Islamic Republic of Iran's governing structure can seem incomprehensible. It isn't. Think of it as a combination of the appearances of democracy with the exigencies of theocracy: the entire government, byzantine as it may seem, is designed to reinforce the power and authority of the "Supreme Leader" of the revolution. Within that structure Iranian politics can be a varied, surprising mix of personalities, agendas and power struggles that flash over the public scene in elections, subtle tugs of war between the supreme leader and the president, or between the president and parliament. Here's a complete guide.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is Iran’s self-styled “Supreme Leader,” only the second such in the history of the Iranian Revolution, after Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who ruled until 1989. He’s neither head of state nor head of the government. Yet Khamenei is essentially a dictatorial theocrat.
Ahmadinejad, the sixth president of Iran since that country’s revolution in 1979, is a populist who represents Iran’s most radicalized factions. His incendiary remarks about Israel, the Holocaust and the West coupled with Iran’s continued development of nuclear power and its support of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon make Ahmadinejad the focal point of a seemingly more dangerous Iran with outsized ambitions.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi is the reformists’ leading candidate and challenger to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Mousavi is not well known. But to call him a liberal is likely an overstatement. Mousavi's more patrician tone and sharper intellect distance him from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and seduce a young generation that never knew his radicalism and apologies for terror and bloodshed. But his policies and ideology, his faithfulness to the Islamic revolution, his economic policies, and his anti-Americanism are all of a piece with Ahmadinejad’s.
Mohammed Khatami represents the most moderate, intellectually urbane wing of the Iranian theocracy. Khatami’s presidential tenure included several diplomatic and tactical overtures toward the United States, which President Bush rebuffed by branding Iran part of the “axis of evil” and damaging Khatami’s standing as a moderate. Khatami rejects the “clash of civilization” thesis, and is devoted to cross-cultural dialogue.
Put simply, Iranian governance is democratic in appearance, theocratic in character and dictatorial in intent, its energies and institutions delegated not from the pluralism of its richly cultured and varied population but funneled quite rigidly toward the safeguard of the Islamic revolution and subservience to it. The system’s complexities is in large part an effective if paradoxical way of disarming criticism of Iranian “democracy” while making it supremely difficult for reformers to break into the system and sway it their way.
There is no such thing as the concept of a “supreme leader” in Islam’s sacred text or in Islamic jurisprudence—either Shiite or Sunni. It is the recent invention, one of many patented through his revolution, of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989), who was seeking to break down the wall between spiritual and political authority in order to control both.
The 12-member Council of Guardians is one of the most powerful, unelected institutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The supreme leader appoints six clerical members. The head of the judiciary, on advice of parliament, appoints six lay members. All 12 members are appointed to six-year terms.
The Assembly of Experts is comparable to the Vatican's College of Cardinals. It is made up of 86 clerics whose chief responsibilities are the election of a Supreme Leader and the monitoring of his performance.
Iran has been aiming to become a nuclear power for more than two decades. The question has always been: for peaceful or offensive means? Iranian leaders themselves have been of two minds an Iranian nuclear weapons program.