Iran's seat of theocratic power

The role of the supreme leader has changed, but Iran's top cleric, Ayatollah Khamenei, still holds sway. How the political system in Tehran works, and who will determine what comes next.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Leader: Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei spoke in Tehran June 19 by an image of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who overthrew the shah in 1979.
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Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei warned Western leaders on Monday of "meddling" in his country's affairs.

"The leaders of arrogant countries, the nosy meddlers in the affairs of the Islamic republic, must know that no matter if the Iranian people have their own differences, when your enemies get involved, the people ... will become a firm fist against you," he said in a televised speech in Tehran.

His speech came on the heels of reports Sunday that the Iranian elite Revolutionary Guard publicly proclaimed its role in supressing the recent street demonstrations, and a group of proreform clerics on Sunday declared the June 12 elections "invalid." The statement was issued from Qom, Iran's center of Shiite scholarship, and is another sign of the power struggle within Iran's clerical establishment.

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The following briefing looks at the power structure of Iran.

What is the supreme leader's role?

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ideological mastermind of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the secular Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, saw the question of justice as central to Islam, and felt that the only just government was one strongly guided by a senior Shiite cleric.

This man is commonly known as the supreme leader. Ayatollah Khomeini was the first, and was succeeded upon his death by Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, now at the center of Iran's political maelstrom.

The supreme leader was given sweeping powers under Iran's 1979 Constitution. He appoints the heads of the armed forces, the people who run the country's sprawling religious foundations (giving him influence over where the riches generated by tithing are directed), and most of the religious authorities who, in theory, have oversight of his actions.

Though there is an elected president and parliament, the supreme leader has final say in matters of state, should he choose to exercise it.

Are there checks on his authority?

Yes, at least in theory. Iran's theocratic structure also includes the 12-man Guardian Council, which interprets the Constitution, decides who is eligible to run for elected office, and supervises elections. It is packed with conservatives largely in the mold of Khomeini. The Assembly of Experts is a larger body of Islamic scholars that is responsible for electing the supreme leader, and theoretically has the power to remove him.

During his 20 years in power, Ayatollah Khamenei has sought to project himself as an avuncular leader more inclined to listen than give orders. That has helped him limit unfortunate comparisons with the towering figure of Khomeini, whom he can match neither in charismatic oratory nor Islamic scholarship, while allowing politicians like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to take the heat for unpopular policies.

Khamenei's "penchant for staying out of the limelight and avoiding notoriety at home has contributed to his resilience, undoubtedly his most effective political asset," Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endow-ment for International Peace, wrote last year.

The president has been allowed to play an important public role as an international front man for the regime, whether he's been a fellow conservative like Mr. Ahmadinejad or the more reform-minded Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's predecessor, whose platform of economic liberalization and international conciliation Khamenei found distasteful.

Is Iran moving toward more autocratic rule?

Many analysts say that the old way of business started to shift in 2004. Apparently alarmed by the success of moderates in the 2000 election, the Guardian Council disqualified more than 3,500 reformist candidates from the 2004 election.

That led to grumblings among more reform-minded segments of Iran's political elite.

"Khamenei and the conservatives have an elite problem," says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We know that a number of individuals in the religious establishment have some reservations about what's been going on, and that leaves him very, very vulnerable in the long term."

"I think he'll prevail in the short term, but he's left with a narrow base – the Republican Guards, conservative clerics, and whatever portion of the country that sees Ahmadinejad as representative of their ideals," she continues. "With those conditions, I think it's impossible for him to maintain that power in the long term. But how long can the short term last?"

"It's not really 'hard-liners versus reformists' right now; it's more, 'Do you think the regime should be allowed to act arbitrarily or not,' " says Juan Cole, a historian of the Middle East and expert on Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "There's a strain of Khomeini-ism that's Nixonian, that believes if the leader does something, then it's legal. But many Iranians – and many religious Iranians – are attached to the rule of law."

Who are the key proponents of change?

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the centrist who says the election was stolen from him, was the figure around whom protesters rallied after the election. It's important to remember that he isn't exactly a Jeffersonian democrat waiting in the wings, however.

Mr. Mousavi was an ardent supporter of Khomeini at the time of the revolution, and served as prime minister under him for eight years in the 1980s (the premiership was then folded into the presidency). While Mousavi has strong support in Iran, probably more important in coming months will be the roles and attitudes of popular clerics, some of whom believe the power of the supreme leader should be reduced.

Among these men is Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, an influential Islamic scholar in the holy city of Qom, who was, at one time, Khomeini's designated successor but was pushed aside as he began to give sermons calling for more political openness in Iran, particularly the legalization of political parties. He has been highly critical of the government since the election, saying in a statement that "no one in their right mind" would believe the official results.

He also delivered a pointed attack on denying free expression of political rights, practically calling it un-­Islamic. The state "should not suppress critical views [and] I fear this will lead people to lose faith in Islam."

Another key figure is former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential reformist cleric who heads the Assembly of Experts. He publicly jousted with Ahmadinejad in the run-up to the presidential election after the president accused him of corruption; his daughter was arrested and held for a few days after the election.

"Rafsanjani has been palpable by his absence," says Ms. Maloney. "What is he doing behind the scenes? What are some of the other individuals that have some reservations about Ahmadinejad doing? These are the important questions, and we don't have good information yet."

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