First, I should say — and I think it was obvious — that I wasn’t making a broad comparison between the Soviet Union and Iran, but rather making a specific comment about the difficulty of drawing conclusions about trends within two often frustratingly opaque regimes.
Sullivan suggests that “it’s false to argue that the [Iranian] presidency is without clout or efficacy,” noting that “Iranian presidents — like Rafsanjani in the late 1980s, and Khatami in the late 1990s — have challenged the Leader on matters of economic isolation, domestic security and the freedoms of Iranian citizens.”
That’s true, but the key thing here is this: They lost. I don’t argue that the presidency is “without clout or efficacy” (though, as Akhbar Ganji pointed out in the piece I quoted, Khatami himself protested that the presidency had been reduced to a factotum) but the presidency operates within a structure that is dominated by the supreme leader’s office.
Sullivan writes that to “focus narrowly on Khamenei and the Royal [sic] Guard, would put us in the same place we were in the 1970s: out of touch with the situation on the ground, and disconnected from the concerns of ordinary Iranians. These decisions, as President Carter learned in 1979, have an impact on foreign policy.”
This is a little odd. We were out of touch with the situation on the ground in Iran in the 1970s mainly because we were the deeply committed sponsor of an oppressive Iranian regime that represented the crux of U.S. regional security strategy. That regime was overthrown, then they kicked us out. It’s a rather different situation now. I certainly don’t think that Iranian popular discontent should be disregarded, but we’ve been hearing these sorts of arguments about the restive Iranian population for years, and while I have no reason to believe that they aren’t true, Khamenei and his allies have consistently proven expert at deflecting calls for reform and preserving their regime, the main levers of which remain firmly in Khamenei’s hands.
Ilan Goldenberg also responds in favor of Tehran-ology:
[The Iranian] system is quite complex and involves multiple actors. Tehran-ology is the only way to try and understand it. [...]
[I]t’s true that Khamenei is the most important player. But his relationship to the president and the other key power brokers is important and will be a factor in decision making on foreign policy. And as long as that is the case, Tehran-ology will be necessary.
Certainly we should try our best to understand the structure of the Iranian government, and what’s going on inside that government, but Tehran-ology, at least as I (perhaps poorly) defined it, specifically has to do with attempting to draw indirect clues about trends in the regime at the expense of understanding that it’s Khamenei who holds the cards. It’s true that Khameini doesn’t rule by fiat. As I read it, he manages competing factions, giving and withdrawing support, based upon various considerations, but the bottom line is that the structure of the government endows his office with a huge amount of power, and he’s only increased that during his tenure.