I hope the title of this article scared you. It should. Knowing that one madman has the power to harness a country’s resources to develop a nuclear bomb and then wipe Israel off the map is a very frightening thought indeed. It is very convenient to have a hard-line figure like Mr. Ahmadinejad to rally against as we gear up for war. But before you run to the store for extra duct tape it might be worth your while, our while, to learn a little bit about where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fits into the Iranian Government power structure. I know it is easier to pin the tail on one donkey rather than many and project our collective fear, anger and hate like a laser beam onto it’s ass; but, the facts may give you pause and surprise you.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is no doubt the public face of Iran today. But, how powerful is he? How much control does he exert over Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Over Iran’s military or intelligence services? Not much, actually.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As such, he is the head of the executive branch. He is also not the commander in chief of the armed forces of Iran. Iran is the only country in the world where the executive branch does not control the armed forces. Iran is a unique flavor of Islamic Theocracy. The highest-ranking official in the Iranian Government is not the President – instead it is the Supreme Leader. According to Iran’s Constitution, the Supreme leader controls the military and the intelligence services, sets domestic and foreign policy, and appoints many officials in the Government. The Supreme Leader alone has the power to declare war. Iran’s nuclear policy is managed by the Supreme National Security Council, which reports directly to the Supreme Leader and is charged with carrying out his policies. The Supreme National Security Council’s members include the President, the speaker of the Parliament, the head of the Judiciary and heads of the armed forces and intelligence services. The President chairs this council and coordinates the Supreme Leader’s policies.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, as the President of Iran, has very limited to non-existent war-making powers. The primary responsibility of Iran’s President is over the country’s economic policies. In most other areas, the President is more of a ceremonial figure rather than one with actual execute authority.
Iran’s Constitution has written into it a complex power structure, and in its unique way contains checks and balances to prevent abuse of power. The Iranian Government is a complex mix of elected officials and appointed officials. The primary elected body is the Assembly of Experts. This body is composed of clerics that are elected by the public. The Assembly of Experts appoints and periodically reconfirms the Supreme Leader. The public also elects the Parliament and the President. Click here for a comprehensive discussion of the structure of the Iranian Government and the relationship between the different bodies of the Government. The figure below depicts the organizational structure of the Iranian Government. Click on the image below for a larger, clearer image.
The Iranian Government is not a monolithic structure. There are conservatives and reformists in the Government. There have been ebbs and flows in the past in the balance between conservatives and reformists. There is likely to be similar political shifts in the future. Iran is not a cult of personality, and certainly not one in the figure of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Ahmadinejad has significant restraints in his power to control foreign policy. We in the United States have a tendency to reduce countries to personalities. We do this at our own peril. If we are to engage in effective management of crises vis-à-vis our adversaries we must first understand them. We do ourselves an injustice and we miss significant opportunities by dealing with a caricature of a foreign country rather than the country itself.
We cannot hope to deal effectively with the challenges that Iran poses without an understanding of the Iranian Government, its politics and its history. We have failed in this once in Iraq. We cannot afford to make the same mistake with Iran. The costs are likely to be much higher.
[Author's Note: This article is the first in what I hope will be a series of articles aimed at understanding the nature of the challenge we face from Iran.]