October 21, 2010
Years ago whenever family friends and my acquaintances got together with me, because I was a journalist, I would always be asked questions related to issues of the day. Most of these individuals were busy with their normal lives and showed little interest in following the daily ups and downs of the political issues of the day.
But I was interested in the political issues of the day and being a journalist followed what was going on. Because of these, they always viewed me to be knowledgeable about what was going on, even events behind the scene. So every time we met, questions followed one after another.
But the most basic question that everybody would ask was “Who is running the regime” or “Who is responsible, who is guiding, and which agency is in charge?”
Everybody wanted to know how the different agencies and political bodies worked and where did open and hidden power really reside. The majority of people of course were not that interested or would say that “they are all alike,” and simply stay aloof. Even today of course there are those inside and outside Iran who look at things this way.
What was interesting for me was that outside Iran and even among foreigners these very questions were important, and had remained unanswered. Every time I would meet someone, invariably the first question always was, “Who is really in charge in the Islamic republic?”
Well, if the response to this question was simple, then we would not be talking about the Islamic republic. The combination of these two terms, Islamic and republic, is indicative of the complexity which only becomes deeper as time passes.
I will try to explain the power structure in the Islamic republic from my perspective. But since this is a big topic, I will only write about the changes in the power/political structure of Iran that have taken place since the controversial and disputed 2009 presidential election.
I believe that the history of the Islamic republic is now highlighted with what it was before 2009 and what it is now, i.e., since the June 2009 election. Prior to the election, the structure looked like this:
The Leader of the Islamic regime was on top of all the institutions
The Guardians Council, the Majlis
The judiciary branch
Assembly of Experts on Leadership
Military and security forces
The Expediency Council
The national radio and television network, and,
Economic foundations and institutions.
This is the list of the most important institutions exercising power and authority in the Islamic republic. And while legally, all of the institutions operated under the Leader, the fact that some of them had popularly elected individuals made it possible that some critics too would become part of this state machinery.
Still, the structure was such that ultimate authority rested with the leader.
The events of the reform period (i.e., when Mohammad Khatami was president between 1997-2005), was the period when the power struggle demonstrated the extent of flexibility this state machinery had. Prior to the 2009 election, the leader of the Islamic state strived to present himself as above factional fighting and to be neutral in such conflicts. He avoided entering the fields on the side of one contender. He was of course not always successful in this goal and on occasions did intervene on behalf of a group or a person. At times, he would also dole out benefits to both opposing and battling factions. For example, he issued the order to eliminate the press law during the sixth Majlis that was being advanced by the moderates. Soon after that, he vetoed the Guardians Council’s annulment of mayoral elections in Tehran. In view of the victories of the reformist in those days, the Guardians Council had intended to annul the elections in Tehran in which the reformist had taken the upper hand. On another occasion, the leader ordered the review of seventh Majlis candidates which had been disqualified by the Guardians Council (despite the disregard for this by the Guardians Council). On still another occasion, he ordered the suspension of Majlis’ efforts to impeach those cabinet ministers in Mohammad Khatami’s administration who had resigned en masse. And finally, during ninth presidential elections, when the Guardians Council had disqualified a candidate (Mostafa Moin), he intervened to annul his disqualification, which resulted in his return to the candidacy.
From my perspective, all of these measures were merely to portray the façade of the neutrality of the leader, because his orders were in fact not followed up on the ground.
Prior to the elections, some institutions such as the judiciary and the legislature, tried, like the leader, to display some form of independence. For example even though power was wielded in influencing the outcome of certain court cases, the effort continued to show that whatever actions were taken were based on law and followed legal procedures. Prior to the elections, there were many cases that demonstrated that political influencing continued in the judiciary, but there were also measures to make things appear to be legal. In general, international and political costs of intervention were considered and calculated.
While the Majlis had become more limited in its scope when compared to the reform period, its position of being the legislative body was never challenged or damaged. Differences about the qualifications and the election procedures existed, but these did not touch on the authority or power of the Majlis.
Prior to the 2009 election, the armed forces, and the security forces, particularly the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) strived to remain behind the scenes. And while in recent years, these had expanded their economic activities and relationships, they never officially intervened or took power into their hands. The para-military forces had from years before started their encroachment into the election process to take over its control and when these were publicly protested (by some such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karoubi and seyed Hassan Khomeini), they completely negated their attempts.
The State Expediency Council which played a greater role during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, lost its impact during Ahmadinejad’s administration. This institution was led by Hashemi Rafsanjani right from the day of its creation, during his presidency. Ayatollah Khamenei used this institution for his own purposes. During Khatami’s years other parallel organizations were formed and after Ahmadinejad came to power the powers and role of this agency were reduced to a ceremonial position.
Assembly of Experts too has turned into a ceremonial institutions in the Islamic republic, while legally its remains the most powerful body that can control and direct the whole system.
So prior to the 2009 election, in the Islamic republic there were always openings for critics and reformers to play some limited role in the political system.
After the 2009 Election
Since the 2009 presidential election, the Islamic republic has undergone a dramatic change. There is a deep difference between the role of political institutions in it.
Its political and economic bodies have undergone a change in their nature. In short, the Islamic republic has removed its mask it wore in the past and has therefore actually become more transparent in the sense that what you see is exactly what the real intentions and roles are. This transparency has been for greater more right-wing activities.
The IRGC, which was a military organization, has now turned into a powerful economic cartel and expanded its activities in all political spheres of the Islamic republic. The largest economic and business groups are gradually falling under the control of the IRGC.
Regarding the Majlis, not only has the legislature become void of real representatives of the people, but is whole raison d’être has come into question. After the election, its two main functions that of passing laws and monitoring the management of the country have been sidelined by the indirect or direct actions of the leader, or one of his subordinate bodies.
The State Expediency Council which at one time was the arm of the leader, has turned into a nuisance for him and its powers have been taken away from it. It plays no role in the current power structure.
The Judiciary has for all practical purposes turned into a tool in the hands of the IRGC. The attempts to present the branch as an independent one have all gone. The branches and courts across the country have no qualms in presenting themselves as mere tools of the Guards.
The Assembly of Experts on Leadership continues to be a ceremonial body. And while some of its members express some criticism over some issues, in reality this body has no role in the current power structure.
So the actual players in the field have diminished since the presidential race of 2009. The leader is now associated to be affiliated to one battling faction in the on-going power competition and battles. The IRGC is now the main arm of the leader in running the country. This monolith is what will in fact shorten the life of the Islamic regime.
The answer to the often asked question, therefore, is now easier to respond to. When a political structure becomes so hierarchical and single-factional, it is easier to comprehend its workings.
I view the change to this monolith be an indication of the power of Iran’s green movement. To implement any meaningful change in meeting the rights of people prior to the election, it was necessary to disrupt the existing political super structure. Since the elections, the balance has been disrupted. Today, no decision in the country can be taken without considering the green movement, whether they be international or at the daily level.
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