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.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei warned Western leaders on Monday of "meddling" in his country's affairs.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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.