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The View From Tehran. Mehrzad Boroujerdi Department of Political Science Maxwell School of Citizenship Syracuse University. Who Rules Iran?.

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The view from tehran l.jpg

The View From Tehran

Mehrzad Boroujerdi

Department of Political Science

Maxwell School of Citizenship

Syracuse University


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Who Rules Iran?

A Byzantine political structure with multiple nodes of power: Supreme Leader, Council of Guardians, Expediency Council, Assembly of Religious Experts, Parliament, President, Council of Ministers, National Security Council, and others…

A collective leadership highly prone to difficulties formulating a national governing consensus (my estimate is that there is a group of 300 individuals who are the real “political heavyweights”)

Yet among all nodes, Ayatollah Khamenei is the most powerful individual. He appoints close to 100 important political personalities, plus an additional 300-500 Friday Prayer leaders, Leader’s representatives, etc.




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The Supreme Leader

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Supreme Leader since June 1989




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Political Characteristics (I)

Effects of the revolution: Its utopian stupor, hybrid ideologies, jagged constituencies, and an inchoate grammar of legitimacy have created a myriad of theological anachronisms and political contradictions in the state.

Hyper-politicization, parallel institutions, intense factionalism, and a lack of transparency

Profound cultural, economic, and demographic transformations of the post-revolutionary era have granted the political sphere a degree of sophistication previously unimaginable.

The urban (61%), literate (80%), and young (median age of 24) nature of Iran’s population has precipitated a revolution of rising expectations.

Yet while the challenges generated by the above dynamics have challenged the regime, its 29-year track record indicates it can be flexible and creative enough to ride the waves.


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Political Characteristics (II)

  • Political dynamics in the Iranian provinces are complex due to ethnic divides and tribal allegiances. Thus, provincial politics have important ramifications for overall internal political developments in Iran.

  • The parliament lacks power;

    the judiciary and the Guardian Council, accountability;

    the civil service, dexterity;

    and the press, freedom.

  • The conservative camp has deep economic and social roots, solid organizational strength, and an army of foot soldiers (e.g., pensioners affiliated with charity foundations, Basij forces).

  • Disagreements among Iranian elites are mainly aired around economic policies rather than foreign policy.

  • The Iranian leadership has a “public discourse of statecraft” and a “private language of negotiation.”


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U.S.-Iranian Relations

Twenty-nine years: Five U.S. Presidents and Six Iranian Presidents

Are mutual views based on concrete facts … or based on political whims and paranoia? Gary Sick has argued that both sides share a moralistic air of self-righteousness in foreign policy matters; both are inclined to ideological rigidity and a sense of moral superiority; and each perceives itself as the indispensable state.

The nuclear cleavage has obscured more promising approaches to U.S.-Iranian relations.


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Relevance of Ideology

Ahmadinejad’s raucous diplomacy has again revived the argument that Iranian foreign policy is based on absolutist ideological principles.

Yet, serious analysis shows that Iran bases foreign policy decisions not on religious ideology but on national interest (See Azerbaijan-Armenia, Russia-Chechnya, India-Pakistan, etc.)

The Iranian leadership is not irrational or crazy, nor do they suffer from a martyrdom complex. They are indeed ambitious -- but very pragmatic.

The varied political transformations of many of the students who took over the U.S. Embassy demonstrate ideology’s flexibility.

The “Blame America and Israel Game” hardly resonates on the Iranian street. After three decades, normal life no longer sustains intense revolutionary attitudes.


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Ramifications for the Policy Options Debate

1) Zero enrichment option

  • Danger: Iran will leave the NPT.

  • Comment: This ship has already left the port. Iranians consider it a non-starter.

    2) Multi-national enrichment option

  • Danger: Iran will master the technology and then will develop weapons in secret.

  • Comment: I believe Iran would probably accept this option but would insist that the enrichment takes place on its soil.


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Conclusions (I)

External pressure can’t bring about a regime change.

You must start talking to Iran unconditionally and must engage the whole spectrum of political power, not just imprudently picking and choosing “moderates” or “pragmatists.” The neglected or presently weaker groups will do their best to torpedo the other faction’s efforts at any type of rapprochement. Spoiling the efforts of one’s rivals, including members of one’s own faction, is common and can take place in the form of managed leaks (i.e., revealing the 1985-1986 Iran-Contra affair) or public criticism.

Iranians don’t necessarily like their regime, but they love their country. You must stress commitment to Iran’s territorial integrity.

Talks with Iran would involve a diplomatic marathon. At least a year would be needed for preliminary agreements.


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Conclusions (II)

5) Assess Iran’s rising power in the region realistically. The U.S. can’t create a regional order that excludes Iran: too big in terms of geography, economy, population, and military might to be left out. Iran uses anti-Americanism to combat its exclusion.

6) Sequence the negotiations and opt for incremental confidence building measures:

  • Afghanistan & Iraq (withdrawing of forces, placing permanent bases in Iraq)

  • Nuclear

  • Arab-Israeli conflict

    7) It would be advisable for the next administration to wait until June 2009 to see who becomes Iran’s President.

    8) Ahmadinejad’s potential rivals (Karoubi, Khatami(s), Ghalibaf and Velayati) will all be more moderate on the nuclear issue.


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Lastly: Ahmadinejad’s Future

Factors working in his favor:

Potent combination of nationalism and populism

Elimination of important potential rivals (Larijani, Haddad-Adel)

Factors working against him:

Deteriorating economic conditions

In addition to the reformists, many influential conservatives (Rezaei, Larijani, Ghalibaf, Mahdavi Kani, etc.) now believe that Ahmadinejad has overplayed his hand with the nuclear issue (this is a generation that still remembers what happened when Iran overplayed its hand in the Iran-Iraq War) and has been reckless in his domestic policies.