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Iranian Presidents Have a Critical Role in Policymaking

Interviewee: Mohsen M. Milani, Professor and Chair, Department of Government and International Affairs, University of South Florida
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
June 10, 2009

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The international interest aroused by Iran's June 12 presidential elections has focused new attention on the role and importance of that office in shaping Iranian policy. Iran's president yields to the authority of the Supreme Leader on major foreign policy issues, including nuclear negotiations, relations with the United States, and military and security issues. But Mohsen Milani, an expert on the Iranian government who teaches at the University of South Florida, says the office of president has a significant role in setting domestic policy, especially on economic matters. Citing the current and previous presidents, Milani says the personal dynamism of a president can also move international relations in a different direction. He compares Mohammed Khatami's presidency with that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and says while Khatami agreed with the suspension of uranium enrichment activities in 2003, Ahmadinejad reversed that policy. He adds: "That's why these elections cannot be discounted as farce or meaningless."

The Supreme Leader has final say on all things related to the Iranian state. So it presents a question for observers: if the political structure gives ultimate power to the Supreme Leader, what does the president actually do and why should we care who wins?

The system of the governance in the Islamic Republic of Iran is arguably unique in the world.  It is based on an Islamic component and a republican component. It has at once democratic and anti-democratic as well as modern and traditional features. The constitution was written with the explicit objective of ensuring that the Islamic component of the system, or the unelected part, is superior to and can dominate the republican component, or the elected part. This does not mean that the Supreme Leader, as the country's most powerful figure, is the only person running the country and can ignore other powerful forces. Yes, there is one man-Ayatollah Khamenei-who ultimately decides the key issues related to the country's security and foreign policies. What I mean by key issues, in terms of foreign policy, is that Khamenei is the one who determines the general direction and the strategic objectives of the entire system and does so after he consults with the main centers of power. While the Supreme Leader is the ultimate source of authority, or the "decider," the president of Iran is the second most powerful person in the country and the public face of the Islamic Republic.  And he can have a profound impact on domestic and foreign policies, and is the most significant force with whom the Supreme Leader has to consult in order to formulate Iran's foreign policy.

"[T]he central question of security or war and peace is not in his [the president's] domain. It's unambiguously in the domain of the Supreme Leader."

Iranian presidential elections have consequences, even though the nominating process is inherently antidemocratic and flawed. To appreciate their importance, compare the presidency of Khatami with that of Ahmadinejad. Khatami suspended enrichment activities in 2003, while Ahmadinejad reversed that policy and took an altogether different course. Those who dismiss Iranian elections as an exercise in futility and as utterly irrelevant would have difficulty explaining the profoundly different policies pursued by Khatami and Ahmadinejad.

You referred to 2003 when then-president Khatami struck a deal to freeze enrichment. President Ahmadinejad has since called that crazy. On the world stage, the current president defends Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. Behind all of these decisions, is the Supreme Leader in essence pulling the strings?

On the nuclear question, it's very clear that the ultimate decision maker is Ayatollah Khamenei. As a matter of fact, the former chief nuclear negotiator of Iran, Hojjatoleslam [Hassan] Rohani, said in an interview that all important decisions regarding Iran's nuclear policies are made after extensive deliberation and they must ultimately be approved by the Supreme Leader. However, it is important to recognize that the leader does not involve himself in the deliberation process. The body in charge of deliberating key national security issues is the Supreme National Security Council, which consists of men that are appointed by the Supreme Leader as well as the president, some members of his cabinet, chiefs of intelligence, chiefs of various branches of the military, and a few other key players.  Once a decision is conveyed to the Supreme Leader, he can approve it or send it back for further deliberation. That's the way key decisions are made. Moreover, I would argue that the more important a decision is to the survival of the Islamic Republic, the greater is the need for building a broad consensus among the major centers of power.

I believe Mr. Rohani is right, and that key decisions are made after extensive deliberation, but ultimately they must be approved by the Supreme Leader.  We can ask why is it that, for example, Khatami was able to suspend uranium enrichment in 2003. This is because as president you are the major force within the Supreme National Security Council; you go there, you make your arguments, you say these are the facts, this is what I've done, this is what I'd like to do, and my recommendation is to suspend enrichment activities at this time. Perhaps Ayatollah Khamenei was uneasy with that decision in 2003, I don't know. But Khatami was able to convince the Supreme National Security Council as well as Ayatollah Khamenei. President Ahmadinejad made a different kind of argument and convinced the Supreme National Security Council and the Supreme Leader to restart enrichment activities. In most presidential systems, when the president changes so does policy.

As we look to this coming election and whether the current president gets another four years or not, Iran's direction really won't change dramatically, but those influencing the direction potentially could?

Yes. Also remember that sometimes tactical change can lead to change in strategy. For example, when you think of President Obama's speech in Cairo, the fact that he started a much needed dialogue with the Islamic world will have its own life and momentum. In the coming months and years, that new environment his historic speech has created could result in major policy changes, both in terms of what America does and what Middle Eastern countries decide to do. It's the same thing in Iran. Sometimes tactical changes or even the tone of what you say can create a new environment. For example, Khatami was able to have a gentle and moderate approach to international politics. He talked about dialogue amongst civilizations. As a result of that approach, he created a friendlier environment in which Iran and the West began to negotiate. Now President Ahmadinejad has opted for a completely different and confrontational tone in his diplomacy. That's why the presidential elections in Iran cannot be discounted as farce or meaningless. They have important ramifications and consequences, especially in terms of domestic policies, the handling of the economy, and the image of Iran in the international community.

When we tend to think internationally and how the power structure plays out, we often put too much attention on foreign policy. But it sounds like the president has a lot of leeway in setting domestic policy, and Ahmadinejad is paying for that now.

Let me make one point about Iran's presidential system: the president does not in any way control the military and security forces or appoint their commanders and chiefs. Nor are these commanders and chiefs accountable to him. In other words, the central question of security or war and peace is not in his domain. It's unambiguously in the domain of the Supreme Leader. That should not surprise you. A careful reading of the deliberations of the Assembly of Experts that wrote  the original Islamic constitution in 1979  makes it clear that the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic were concerned about the possibility of a president becoming too powerful and undermining the Islamic nature of the system. Therefore, they developed powerful institutional mechanisms to prevent the republican component of the system from dominating its Islamic part. But going back to the issue of domestic policy, you're absolutely correct that by the virtue of controlling government expenditures and determining economic policy, or by the power of appointing members of the cabinet and hundreds of other sensitive posts, Iranian presidents exercise considerable power. They can decide to open up the economic system or empower the private sector, as was the case under Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, or increase government subsidies, as is the case with President Ahmadinejad. They can open up the political system a bit or can increase censorship or suppression. Simply put, they cannot be ignored.

"[The president] will have his input as the second-most powerful person in Iran, but there are other powerful people involved in making the decision to normalize or not normalize relations with the United States or to change or not to change Iran's nuclear policies."

How much can the Supreme Leader do to see that his favorite candidate is elected?

Officially the Supreme Leader keeps saying that he doesn't interfere or take sides in the elections. In the highly factionalized system in Iran, and in a society where conspiratorial theories are highly popular, people interpret his every move and his every sermon and declaration and reach their own conclusions. For example, a few months ago, Khamenei said something critical of Ahmadinejad. Until he made that comment, some people believed Ahmadinejad was his favorite candidate. After he made the comment, they said he had changed his mind. I don't take such claims seriously. What I do know is that the Supreme Leader appoints six members of the Council of Guardians that examines the credentials of presidential candidates. That gives him extraordinary input in the process that can determine who will or will not be able to compete in presidential elections. Although the Supreme Leader is in charge of the country's security and its stability and therefore must be careful not to openly side with any candidate or any faction, as he has been, we know that many important decisions are made without any trace of evidence.

You mentioned the intent of the constitutional framers was very much in line of keeping the power of the presidency down. But something happened in 1989 with a constitutional review. Can you talk a little bit about that and how things have changed and developed over the last twenty years?

The original constitution that was drafted after the Islamic revolution of 1979 was based on a weak presidency and a strong parliamentary system. The president appointed the prime minister, who had to be approved by the parliament. The problem in Iran was, as it has occasionally been in France's Fifth Republic, the inefficiency of the dual executive -or what is usually referred to as "cohabitation" between president and prime minister. There was, in the 1980s, continuous dispute and bickering between the president and the prime minister and between the prime minister and the Majles or parliament. Ayatollah Khomeini was unhappy with that sad state of affairs, and this is one of the reasons why he created the Expediency Council as a way of resolving institutional conflicts within the Islamic Republic. But more importantly, before he died, the constitution itself was revised in 1988. Two fundamentally important changes were made: First, it increased the power of the Supreme Leader, and lowered the qualifications for becoming the Supreme Leader. In the original constitution, the Supreme Leader was required to be a leading source of emulation-a leading Ayatollah-that enjoyed overwhelming popularity among the people. In the revised constitution, the words "overwhelming support among the people" were deleted.  Instead, the document stipulated that the Supreme Leader has to be well-versed in Islamic jurisprudence, be pious, and be a capable manager.  This meant that someone less than an Ayatollah could become the Supreme Leader, which is exactly what happened after Khomeini died.

The second change was abolishing the institution of prime minister, and transferring his powers to the presidency. The revised constitution, in fact, changed the structure of the government in order to make it more centralized. Despite these major changes in the revised constitution, the fundamental nature of the Islamic system of governance was not changed, as the Islamic component of the system remained dominant over the republican component.

Has the office of the presidency continually increased in power or is that too bold of a statement?

The relationship between the Supreme Leader's office and the presidency is complex and has changed as presidents have changed. When President Rafsanjani was in office, he had a "special kind of relationship" with the Supreme Leader. Remember that he became president around the same time that Khamenei replaced Khomeini as the Supreme Leader. Because of Rafsanjani's long friendship with Khamenei, which goes back to the 1960's when they were both active in a small network of pro-Khomeini activists, and because he was the first president after Khomeini's death, and because Khamenei had just taken over the office of the Supreme Leader and did not feel very secure, Iran had a strong presidency. Rafsanjani knew what he wanted to do and Khamenei didn't interfere. Khamenei knew exactly what Rafsanjani was doing, but was preoccupied with consolidating his own rule. The presidency was powerful, not only because of the special relationship between Khamenei and Rafsanjani, but also because of Rafsanjani's character and personality. He was extremely close to Khomeini, both before and after the revolution. He was a powerful Speaker of the Majlis, and in that role had established powerful networks within the Islamic Republic. His personality turned the office of Majles Speaker into one of the most powerful offices in the country. During the hostage crisis, for example, Khomeini and Speaker Rafsanjani were the center of gravity. Simply put, there was a sort of equilibrium of power between the presidency and the office of the Vali-ye Faqih or the Supreme Leader.

That equilibrium was disturbed by Khatami's surprising victory in 1998. Khatami didn't have that kind of special relationship with Khamenei that Rafsanjani had. In addition, he was committed to reform and democratization, which the conservative and the security forces did not appreciate, and believed, would lead to the eventual collapse of the Islamic Republic. More critically, by that time the Supreme Leader had comfortably consolidated power. Therefore, under Khatami, the presidency was not as powerful as it was under Rafsanjani, and the relationship between the office of the Supreme Leader and the presidency was at best tense. Ahmadinejad has been considerably a more powerful president than Khatami was, partly because he is ideologically closer to Khamenei, has not challenged Khamenei the way Khatami did, and is willing to exercise power unabashedly.

In terms of future relations with the U.S., and whether the nuclear issue moves forward in any way, does it matter who wins?

A qualified yes. But again, I must emphasize that Ayatollah Khamenei has to approve any major shift in Iranian foreign policy. [Candidate Mir-Hossein] Mousavi's foreign policy will of course be different from Ahmadinejad's. It will be considerably less confrontational. But regardless of who gets elected, no president will be able to single-handedly decide to begin talking with the U.S. or reverse Iran's nuclear policies, which are highly explosive issues in Iran. He will have his input as the second-most powerful person in Iran, but there are other powerful people involved in making the decision to normalize or not normalize relations with the United States or to change or not to change Iran's nuclear policies. The more sensitive an issue is, the greater is the need for the major centers of power to reach consensus. That's why the Islamic Republic usually has had a tough time making the tough decisions, and it often has done so when there is unbearable pressure on it. Those who make the sensitive decisions are often aware of the other centers of power. They try to avoid the major fault lines. Make no mistake about it; the presidential elections in Iran do make a difference, and they are the only game in town and the only way to influence policy at this time. They can definitely change the political and domestic environment, and that can have unexpected consequences.

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