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Iran’s Supreme Power Struggle

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.

In fact, it appears that the massive demonstrations against Ahmadinejad delayed their confrontation, since both the Supreme Leader and the president rallied publicly to defend the legitimacy of the election. But Ahmadinejad’s radical Islamist views and his support among religious, lower middle-class Iranians have not protected him from Khamenei.