Iran’s Supreme Power Struggle

Iran's dysfunctionalforeign and nuclear policies reflect the tension between Iran's president and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which is built into the Islamic Republic’s core. Consumed with their test of wills, they are unable to make well informed and nuanced decisions in their dealings with outsiders.

WASHINGTON, DC – Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has never been happy about the status of the Iranian presidency – neither during his own tenure, from 1981-1989, nor during the terms of his three successors.

Tension between the president and the Supreme Leader is built into the Islamic Republic’s core. The Supreme Leader has absolute authority and can veto decisions made by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. At the same time, the president emerges from an electoral process with an agenda and ambitions of his own. During a president’s second term – which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has now begun – the tensions inevitably emerge into public view.

Khamenei has never been willing to tolerate a president with a large independent power base. In the past, he clipped the wings of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had strong ties to the merchant class, and of Mohammad Khatami, a reformer whose support came from Westernized middle-class professionals. Though Ahmadinejad received the Supreme Leader’s support in the face of large-scale protests against his re-election last year, Khamenei does not appear hesitant about limiting the president’s power.

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