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No Matter Who Wins, Iran’s Supreme Leader Controls Foreign Policy

In the days before Iran’s June 14 presidential election, some Iranian commentators wrote that Iran’s foreign policy agenda will not change no matter who wins the poll due to United States and European Union sanctions.

“The next Iranian president will not be able to revert to (Mohammed ) Khatami’s nuclear strategy because the nuclear file has already been referred to the Security Council, nor to (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad’s strategy, because the multinational and unilateral sanctions should be lifted,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator now living in the United States who is to some degree a messenger for some factions within the Iranian state, wrote on the website Al Monitor.

In fact, there are far more profound reasons a new president will not affect Iran’s foreign policy agenda— reasons which have more to do with domestic politics in Iran than any changes in Tehran’s relationship with Washington. According to Iran’s constitution, the president has limited say on foreign policy matters; it is the Supreme Leader who has the greatest influence. And Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over the years has tried to reduce the presidential footprint on foreign affairs even further. In fact, he was considering revising the constitution to formally dissolve the presidency.

In October, 2011, when Ahmadinejad directly challenged Khamenei’s authority, the supreme leader threatened to institute a parliamentary system of government and eliminate the presidency altogether: “Presently, the country’s ruling political system is a presidential one in which the president is directly elected by the people, making this a good and effective method,” he said. “However, if one day, probably in the distant future, it is deemed that the parliamentary system is more appropriate for the election of officials with executive power, there would be no problem in altering the current structure.”

After eight years of Ahmadinejad’s open warfare on much of the Western world and the price Iran had to pay for this hostility, Khamenei has no tolerance for grandstanding on the world stage. Khamenei now makes decisions on the foreign policy issues of most importance to the United States: the nuclear issue and Iran’s role in the region, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. These issues are no longer up for debate within the Iranian state, at least not among Khamenei hard-core loyalists.

During one televised national debate, some candidates criticized presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator, for being partly to blame for the current impasse with the West over the nuclear file. When he took over nuclear diplomacy in 2007, Jalili drove a harder line with world powers looking to rein in Iran’s nuclear program to ensure it does not develop the means to build atomic weapons. But while this might win some candidates support within the electorate— many Iranians suffering economic hardship would like to see sanctions lifted— such statements are likely to cause a candidate to lose the election, if Khamenei has any say in the outcome of the vote. Jalili, who is close to Khamenei and believed to be his favorite in the presidential election, was likely carrying out Khamenei’s orders when he was a nuclear negotiator.

This is precisely Khamenei’s objective. Not only has he successfully reduced the president’s powers on foreign policy issues, but based on the selection of this year’s presidential contenders by the Guardian Council, he is determined that the next president will execute his orders on all matters. The Guardian Council is a body of clerics and laymen appointed by Khamenei and is responsible for vetting presidential contenders. Nearly all of the contenders, aside from reformist Hassan Rouhani, who is unlikely to win, would be far more obedient to Khamenei than previous presidents.

The presidency is finished,” exiled former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr told Reuters. “Even under (ex-president) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Republic resisted. He had a say, but that’s over.”

Author

Geneive Abdo

Former Brookings Expert

Fellow, Middle East/Southwest Asia - The Stimson Center

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