Against Tehran-ology

khamenei-khomeini.jpegDuring the Cold War, “Kremlinology” was a term for the practice of attempting to determine the workings of the Soviet government, and which leaders or factions were on the rise or decline at a given moment. U.S. analysts often (and often wrongly) drew clues from such things as who was standing where during the May Day parade, who was lunching with whom, who got the best seats at the Bolshoi Theater.

A couple of stories out of Iran provide good opportunity to argue against a similar sort of approach — call it Tehran-ology — that tries to determine an approach toward Iran based upon perceived political trends among Iranian elites.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that one of former Iranian president — and current presidential candidate — Mohamed Khatami’s most prominent backers, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, switched to support one of Khatami’s rivals, Mehdi Kharroubi. Both candidates are considered reformers, and have been critical of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Today the Washington Post reports that another critic of Ahamedinejad, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi has also announced his candidacy. But while it’s fair to see all of this as evidence of popular discontent with Ahmadinejad’s poor stewardship of the economy, as always it’s unclear what, if anything, any of this says about Iranian supreme leader Khamenei’s orientation toward rapprochement with the U.S., which is the key consideration.

On that point, Iranian dissident Akhbar Ganji had this article in the Nov/Dec issue of Foreign Affairs, it’s one of the best and most concise descriptions of the structure of the Iranian government that you’ll find. The bottom line: Regardless of which leaders and factions are up or down at any given moment, Ayatollah Khamenei is always up.

The Iranian constitution endows the supreme leader with tremendous authority over all major state institutions, and Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, has found many other ways to further increase his influence. Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all operate under the absolute sovereignty of the supreme leader; Khamenei is the head of state, the commander in chief, and the top ideologue. He also reaches into economic, religious, and cultural affairs through various government councils and organs of repression, such as the Revolutionary Guards, whose commander he himself appoints.

Of all of Iran’s leaders since the country became the Islamic Republic in 1979, only Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s leader; Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s president for much of the 1990s; and Khamenei have had defining influences. Despite all the attention he receives, Ahmadinejad does not even rank among Iran’s top 100 leaders over the past 30 years. Khamenei supports Ahmadinejad immeasurably more than he did any of Ahmadinejad’s predecessors, but Ahmadinejad is only as powerful as he is devoted to Khamenei and successful at advancing his aims. Khamenei’s power is so great, in fact, that in 2004 the reformist Muhammad Khatami declared that the post of president, which he held at the time, had been reduced to a factotum. Blaming the country’s main problems on Ahmadinejad not only overstates his influence; it inaccurately suggests that Iran’s problems will go away when he does. More likely, especially regarding matters such as Iran’s foreign policy, the situation will remain much the same as long as the structure of power that supports the supreme leader remains unchanged.

While inviting Iran to the upcoming conference on Afghanistan seems like a prudent move — engaging Iran first on a key area of mutual concern rather than going after the big issues outright — it’s important to remember that Khamenei is the main arbiter of Iran’s foreign policy. Regardless of who is favored at the moment or what trends are extant, as Karim Sadjadpour told Middle East Progress last month, any approach “that aims to ignore, bypass or undermine Khamenei is guaranteed to fail.”