United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Khamenei Consolidates Control Amid Other Power Shifts

Mehrzad Boroujerdi


Since Iran’s presidential election in 2009, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has evolved into a micromanager of Iranian politics. He curtailed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies. He turned the lights off on Iran’s reformists. He emasculated all other major institutions, including parliament, the judiciary, the Experts Assembly and the 12-man Guardian Council. And he subdued the religious seminaries as the citadel of clerical power.

 
Today, neither the press nor other governmental bodies can effectively investigate any of the organs under the Supreme Leader. Nor can any institution overrule him. Iran is technically a semi-presidential system in which executive power is bifurcated between the president and the Supreme Leader. But during 23 years in office, Khamenei has amassed disproportionate power by manipulating institutions so he can bypass the democratic rules (based on French and Belgian law) enshrined in the Iranian constitution.
 
 Iran has undergone other key changes since the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad:
 
·        The most consequential competition in the Islamic Republic today is between two key factions of conservatives.  The old establishment traditionalists are losing ground to a new generation of conservative Young Turks who have even more humble backgrounds; they also hail largely from the security forces and veterans of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. There is no clear cut line between these two factions, however, as people freely move between them. 
 
·        Popular support for the regime has shrunk significantly due to the cumulative impact of economic discontent and troubled elections in 2005 and 2009. As a result, the theocracy has become increasingly reliant on Iran’s diverse security forces.
 
·        The number of clerics elected to office, such as parliament, has also increased the political leverage of security forces both within and on the political system.
 
·        Key reformists-- sidelined in the 2005 election and unofficially expelled from the game in the disputed 2009 election—basically opted to retain their legitimacy rather than have to cohabitate with their nemeses in power.
 
·        Yet newcomers are entering elite ranks. Iran’s factional infighting, political maneuvering, and theological acrobatics are helping newcomers to enter elite ranks. 
 
·        Iran’s political system is today more Byzantine than ever. It is characterized by hyper-politicization, a top-heavy state, parallel institutions, and lack of transparency.
 
Iran has some of the characteristics of both a “sultanistic” and “Praetorian” state, yet it is still premature to label the state completely one or the other. But the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are the undisputed second power in Iran today. Its veterans, especially of the Iran-Iraq War, have increasingly permeated the bureaucracy, economy and government. They are in charge of the hydra-headed military-security institutions, and they champion the initial élan of the revolution.
 
This constituency largely shares the Supreme Leader’s security outlook, but also has the power to set the agenda. It will almost certainly retain influence for the foreseeable future, although the Revolutionary Guards do not have the requisite cultural capital or street credibility to appeal to the broad urban public.
 
As of mid-2012, the regime is more stable now than it was after the controversial 2009 election.  Its regional power has also been boosted thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having subdued their internal opponents, the Supreme Leader and his lieutenants now feel most threatened by the outside. As a result, chances of reaching a compromise with the United States before the U.S. presidential election in November 2012 are slim. And sanctions, while painful, will not lead the leadership to concede much ground on the nuclear issue. 
 

Mehrzad Boroujerdi is a Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University. He has compiled a database with detailed information on nearly 2,000 people in the political elite of Iran--from cabinet and parliament members to religious authorities, military officer, members of the judiciary and presidential advisers.

 

 

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