As the Iranian parliamentary elections of March 2008 approached, many Iranians wondered nostalgically: If a reformist had won the 2005 presidential election instead of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would Iran be in its current dismal state? For Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, a former government spokesperson, Iran's situation is "worse today that it has ever been over the past 50 years." And for many Iranian opposition leaders, as well as much of the Western media and political class, Ahmadinejad is the main culprit of Iran's ills today: censorship, corruption, a failing economy, the prospect of a U.S attack.
But this analysis is incorrect, if only because it exaggerates Ahmadinejad's importance and leaves out of the picture the country's single most powerful figure: Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. The Iranian constitution endows the supreme leader with tremendous authority over all major state institutions, and Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, has found many other ways to further increase his influence. Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all operate under the absolute sovereignty of the supreme leader; Khamenei is the head of state, the commander in chief, and the top ideologue. He also reaches into economic, religious, and cultural affairs through various government councils and organs of repression, such as the Revolutionary Guards, whose commander he himself appoints.
Of all of Iran's leaders since the country became the Islamic Republic in 1979, only Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's leader; Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president for much of the 1990s; and Khamenei have had defining influences. Despite all the attention he receives, Ahmadinejad does not even rank among Iran's top 100 leaders over the past 30 years. Khamenei supports Ahmadinejad immeasurably more than he did any of Ahmadinejad's predecessors, but Ahmadinejad is only as powerful as he is devoted to Khamenei and successful at advancing his aims. Khamenei's power is so great, in fact, that in 2004 the reformist Muhammad Khatami declared that the post of president, which he held at the time, had been reduced to a