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 factotum. Blaming the country's main problems on Ahmadinejad not only overstates his influence; it inaccurately suggests that Iran's problems will go away when he does. More likely, especially regarding matters such as Iran's foreign policy, the situation will remain much the same as long as the structure of power that supports the supreme leader remains unchanged.


To be sure, there are differences between the presidencies of Khamenei himself (1981-89), Rafsanjani (1989-97), Khatami (1997-2005), and Ahmadinejad (2005-). The tenure of Khatami was superior in many ways; he at least tried to usher in significant political liberalization. And yet, as ill advised as Ahmadinejad's leadership has been in some respects, it has not been as great a departure from the past as it might seem. And although on some issues Iran has fared worse under Ahmadinejad, in other respects things have accidentally gotten somewhat better.

Judging by the freedom of Iran's elections, there has been little progress. Whether they are for the post of president, the unicameral parliament (known as the Majlis), or local councils, elections in Iran are rigged pseudoelections. Candidates must pledge in writing that they are committed, in theory and in practice, to the Iranian constitution, Islam, the absolute sovereignty of the supreme leader, and the late Khomeini. Many left-wing members of parliament were banned from running for reelection in the 1992 contest, when Rafsanjani was president. In the Majlis elections of February 2004, under President Khatami, about 190 of parliament's 290 seats were earmarked in advance for specific conservative candidates and about 43 percent of the registered candidates (3,500 of 8,172) were disqualified—this was "a parliamentary coup," according to Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist and the deputy interior minister at the time. The presidential election that Ahmadinejad won, in 2005, was so rigged that several top officials resigned in protest. Matters have not improved much since. In the Majlis elections earlier this year, 158 seats were earmarked (leaving only 132 spots open for contest) and about 26 percent of the registered candidates (2,000 of 7,597) were disqualified. The reformist group Mujahideen of the Islamic Revolution Organization decried these "made-to-order" elections as an attempt by the leadership to fashion an obedient Majlis.

In other areas, the situation has improved modestly. The first decade after the revolution was the Islamic Republic's worst in terms of violent repression. Political prisoners were systematically tortured; in the summer of 1988, several thousand were executed on Khomeini's orders—and on Khamenei's watch as president. Under Rafsanjani, the Intelligence and Security Ministry routinely assassinated opposition figures in Iran and abroad, and the torture of political prisoners continued unabated. Soon after Khatami was elected, the Intelligence and Security Ministry killed a number of dissidents, and although the human rights situation improved because of greater press freedom and increased discussion of human rights abuses, those of us who wrote about these continuing injustices were thrown in jail. Detention conditions remain deplorable today—over the past year alone, a young female doctor and a Kurdish student have died in custody—but they have generally improved compared to the 1980s. This progress has had little to do with Ahmadinejad, however. If instances of political repression have decreased over the past three decades, it is largely because notions of democracy and human rights have taken root among the Iranian people and thus it has become much more difficult for the government to commit crimes.

Similarly, criticism of the supreme leader is more frequent. Journalists such as Ahmad Zeydabadi and Issa Saharkhiz, the Association for Press Freedom in Iran, the theologian Ahmad Qabel (who argues that religion recommends but does not mandate that women cover their heads), and various reformist political groups have written open letters and essays condemning Khamenei. Enforcement of the state's long-standing project for "promoting societal security"—a euphemism for social repression, especially through the enforcement of an official dress code—has not been as strict under Ahmadinejad as it was previously. In fact, younger Iranians have adopted lifestyles that are totally unacceptable to the regime.

Ahmadinejad's populist rhetoric has also had the unexpected effect of allowing greater scrutiny of his policies. By using plain language to criticize his political opponents, Ahmadinejad has prompted them to speak in plainer and more forceful terms, too. Early this year, when Ahmadinejad dismissed reformist politicians as being "ill qualified" to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections, Mohsen Armin, a prominent reformist, shot back: "If ill-qualified people are being advised to desist from registering as candidates so that they don't inflict a cost on the country, Ahmadinejad is undoubtedly the first person who should be banned from standing in elections." Pointing to "inflation growing by the day and the people suffering hardship in various ways," Tajzadeh, the former deputy interior minister, has charged Ahmadinejad with being "incompetent on executive and economic affairs." Sayyid Mohammad Sadr, deputy foreign minister in Khatami's government, has written that the defining features of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy are "his inexpert and delusory outlook," "a sense of self-adoration," and "profound ignorance." Sadr continues: "He doesn't know that he doesn't know, so he doesn't ask anyone. . . . Ahmadinejad needs to travel a bit." Such attacks had no parallel during Khatami's presidency. Khatami and his fellow reformists were often accused of being irreligious and anti-Islamic. Ahmadinejad is charged with subscribing to "superstitious religiosity," magic, and the occult. Some people have even called him crazy.

Of course, press censorship continues. At the end of 2007, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which formulates Iran's security policies, instructed the press on what it could publish about U.S.-Iranian relations, Iraq, and the parliamentary and presidential elections and banned the dissemination of dissenting views on Iran's nuclear program, minority unrest near Iran's borders with Afghanistan or Iraq, and the rationing of petrol. But such censorship also took place during the terms of Rafsanjani and Khatami. For example, Khatami once prohibited the deputies of the sixth Majlis (2000-2004) from reading a letter criticizing Khamenei's position on the nuclear question at an open session of parliament and the newspapers from publishing it.

Ahmadinejad deserves little credit for whatever progress Iran may have witnessed under his presidency, but nor does he deserve to be singled out as considerably worse than his predecessors or his peers. And yet antagonism toward him has so blinded observers that when other conservatives step down or are set aside, they instantly are viewed as better fellows than he. Ali Larijani was missed as soon as he resigned as chief negotiator on nuclear issues, in late 2007, even though during the decade that he headed the state broadcasting organization, he repeatedly broadcast television programs that sought to tarnish the reputation of dissidents and reformists through half-truths, fabrications, and outright lies. Similarly, when Yahya Rahim Safavi was replaced as the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, reformists started muttering that his successor was a very dangerous man. Apparently, they had forgotten that Safavi once said that his job consisted of pouring water into their "snake holes."


If any single person is to blame for Iran's state today it is Khamenei, who over the course of two decades as supreme leader has secured a complete stranglehold on power in Iran. "Where domination is primarily traditional, even though it is exercised by virtue of the ruler's personal autonomy, it will be called patrimonial authority," Max Weber wrote in Economy and Society in 1922; "where it indeed operates primarily on the basis of discretion, it will be called sultanism." Sultanism is both traditional and arbitrary, according to Weber, and it expresses itself largely through recourse to military force and through an administrative system that is an extension of the ruler's household and court. Sultans sometimes hold elections in order to prove their legitimacy, but they never lose any power in them. According to Weber, sultans promote or demote officials at will, they rob state bodies of their independence of action and infiltrate them with their proxies, and they marshal state economic resources to fund an extensive apparatus of repression. Weber might have been describing Khamenei.

Iran today is indeed a neosultanate, not a totalitarian state, nor even a fascist one. Such regimes create single-voiced societies, and many different voices can be heard in Iran today. Contemporary Iran is still officially an Islamic theocracy, but no single ideology dominates the country. In the totalitarian Soviet state, there was nothing but Marxism and the official Bolshevik version of it at that. In Iran, liberalism, socialism, and feminism have all been tagged as alternatives to the ruling ideology, and many Iranians openly identify with these currents. Iran has no single all-embracing party in charge of organizing society. It has dozens of parties—such as the pro-reform Mosharekat (Participation) Party and the pragmatic conservative Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Executives of Construction) Party—and although they are not as free or autonomous as parties in democratic countries, they represent views that deviate from the government's. To some extent, too, Khamenei has to address their concerns. Facing an uproar over the continued killings of political dissidents in 1998, for instance, Khamenei was forced to address the public—and from a Friday prayer pulpit in Tehran—to blame the murders on rogue elements within the Intelligence and Security Ministry.

Nor does Islam run Iran. The ruling religious fundamentalists lack a unified vision, and fundamentalist, traditionalist, and modernist versions of Islam compete for attention among Iranians. Since the 1979 revolution, religion has served the Iranian state, not the other way around. Khomeini held a resolutely sultanistic view of Islam. "The state . . . takes precedence over all the precepts of sharia," he wrote in 1988. "The ruler can destroy a mosque or a house if it impedes the construction of a road. . . . The state can temporarily prevent the hajj [the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, an important religious duty] when it considers it to be contrary to the interests of the Islamic state." Although there are, of course, both fascists and fascistic readings of Islam in Iran, these do not make Iran a fascist state. Whatever the intentions and aims of the country's ruling fundamentalists, it is the social facts on the ground that determine what kind of regime Iran really has.

One of these facts is that Article 57 of the Iranian constitution grants the supreme leader absolute power. It states that the "powers of government in the Islamic Republic are vested in the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive powers, functioning under the supervision of the absolute religious leader." Moreover, the Council of Guardians, the constitution's official interpreter, has ruled that this clause defines only the supreme leader's minimum prerogatives. Khamenei has used his broad mandate to exercise control not only over all three branches of government but also over economic, religious, and cultural affairs, sometimes directly and sometimes through various councils or through the Revolutionary Guards. Such absolute sovereignty allows the supreme leader to arbitrarily intervene in the lives of his citizens. The fact that such broad power is granted by the constitution does not make its application any less discretionary.


A major lever of power is the supreme leader's ability to appoint and dismiss senior government officials. President Rafsanjani allowed Khamenei to choose his culture minister, interior minister, intelligence minister, higher-education minister, and foreign minister. (Khamenei has always been particularly interested in those ministries as well as in foreign affairs.) From the time of his appointment in 1989, Khamenei has limited his appointees' terms and regularly dislodged the occupants of sensitive military and police posts. It matters little that Khamenei is not likely to sack Ahmadinejad; the point is that he can.

Khamenei also exercises significant control over the Majlis. Officially, the Interior Ministry oversees elections, but in reality that is the work of the Council of Guardians, half of whose members are appointed by the supreme leader. In addition to ensuring that pending legislation conforms to the constitution, the 12 clerics and jurists who sit on the council vet all candidates for the presidency, the Majlis, and the Assembly of Experts (a clerical body that, in turn, elects and supervises the supreme leader). In 1992, after Khamenei said that the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, a left-wing Islamic faction that was behind the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, were "seditionists," the Council of Guardians prevented 41 third-term Majlis deputies from that faction from running for reelection. In all, according to Behzad Nabavi, a founder of the reformist Mujahideen of the Islamic Revolution Organization, more than 3,500 people were eventually disqualified from running in the 1992 parliamentary elections, including more than 80 Majlis incumbents. Khamenei frequently criticized the pro-reform sixth Majlis for being "pro-American" and "radical" and for having a "general voice" that was "contrary to many of the regime's interests," and he openly praised the conservative seventh Majlis (2004-8). Months ahead of the March 2008 parliamentary elections, he ordered the disqualification of deputies who had taken part in a sit-in before the 2004 elections. The Council of Guardians also has the authority to veto any law approved by the parliamentarians (the president has no such power). For example, it did not even allow the distrusted sixth Majlis to reduce the state broadcasting organization's budget. Abolghassem Khazali, a former member of the Council of Guardians, has declared that if just four members of the council oppose what 60 million Iranians approve, "that is the end of the matter."

More broadly, Khamenei exercises control over all of Iran's elected institutions by virtue of a constitutional provision (Article 110) that empowers him to set the state's general policies. Khamenei draws up countless military, economic, judicial, social, cultural, and educational policies and conveys them to state bodies for implementation via the Expediency Council. (This council, whose members are appointed by the supreme leader, is tasked with resolving policy disputes between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians.) In other words, even if the reformists could gain control of the elected bodies, any independent policies they tried to implement would be countered in the name of upholding the state's general policies. For example, when Khamenei found fault with the Majlis' budget bill for 2008-9, both he and Rafsanjani, now chair of the Expediency Council, asked the Council of Guardians to alert the Majlis of these flaws. Soon afterward, the Majlis amended the bill, appending proposals from the Expediency Council to it. And this was a conservative-held Majlis; a reformist-controlled parliament would obviously have fared much worse.

The judiciary, too, falls under Khamenei's sphere of influence, and he has long used it as a tool of repression. The Islamic Revolutionary Court, which has wide discretion to try sedition cases, is subject to the supreme leader's whims. Saeed Mortazavi, the judge who presided over the crackdown on the reform movement during the Khatami presidency and now the senior prosecutor in Tehran, has been issuing detention orders for civil-society activists and sending hundreds of them to jail. The intelligence minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejeie, has for years been ordering the detention and jailing of opposition figures via the Special Court for the Clergy and the Disciplinary Court for Government Employees, both of which are controlled by the office of the supreme leader. Mehdi Karroubi, the Speaker of the Majlis in 1989-92 and 2000-2004, has said that he won the release of the Majlis deputy Hossein Loqmanian (who had been jailed on charges of insulting the judiciary) by "ask[ing] for an audience with the eminent leader." The banning of newspapers and the jailing of journalists are often the handiwork of the judiciary. In 1998, Khamenei went so far as to instruct then President Khatami to confine the investigations into the so-called chain murders of 1998 to the time of Khatami's presidency (during which only four of the several dozens of killings took place) and not to probe any higher than the level of Saeed Emami, the deputy intelligence minister and the prime suspect in the case.

As the state's head ideologue, Khamenei also has power over religious matters. He has sidelined Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani and Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, two conservative clerics who had enjoyed great influence under Khomeini but occasionally displayed some independence of thought. He controls the mosques and appoints all Friday-prayer leaders. Each week, the prayer headquarters in Tehran (which are controlled by Khamenei) dictate what issues sermons throughout Iran should discuss. Seminaries have historically been independent of the government, but Khamenei has extended his influence over them by increasing their funding from the state. In a break with tradition, he determines who can be a high-ranking jurist with the authority to interpret Islam's foundational texts.

Likewise, Khamenei has a hand in cultural and academic matters. Although the president is, ex officio, the chair of the SNSC, the supreme leader controls the council's composition and endorses its decisions and practices, one of which is to censor the media in the name of national security. Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli, one of the council's former first deputy secretaries, said in an interview with the conservative Tehran-based Mehr News Agency last February that disagreement among council members was "ruled out, because, on overarching and fundamental issues, the SNSC proceeds on the basis of the leader's commands and decisions. . . . The leader makes the decisions, and the government implements them." In the late 1990s, Khamenei made sure that Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a one-time heir to Khomeini who had criticized human rights abuses in Iran, was kept under house arrest for several years on the basis of a decision by the SNSC.

Khamenei's interferences in cultural and academic affairs apply to matters big and small. In 1998, he forbade Abdollah Nouri, the interior minister under Khatami, from speaking at a countryside Sunni mosque during a time of turmoil among Iran's minority Sunni population. When Nouri disobeyed, Khamenei arranged for him to be removed from the cabinet and tried before the Special Court of the Clergy. (Nouri was sentenced to five years in prison.) Furthermore, Khamenei personally vetted the list of writers who would be honored at a 1998 conference commemorating "20 years of literary fiction." At the request of conservative clerics, he ordered the deletion of part of the entry about Haj Sayyid Mohammad Rashti, a prominent nineteenth-century cleric, in the Dehkhoda encyclopedia. (The offending passage suggested that Rashti may have carried out 120 executions in the name of religious punishment, beheading defendants after having made them confess and telling them "he would personally intercede on their behalf on Judgment Day.") Similarly, Khamenei routinely influences the media through the policies of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, all of whose current members he personally appointed. He also makes his political preferences widely known, expecting everyone to work toward satisfying them. In 1998, Khamenei lavished the conservative Association of Muslim Journalists with praise: "I thank you all. You are the ones who defend Islam's borders on the frontline of the battle against the West's cultural invasion. You all have machine guns in your hands. But I'd like to extend a special thanks to Kayhan newspaper. Kayhan not only has a machine gun in its hand, it is also a very capable sniper."


At his first meeting with cabinet ministers as supreme leader, in 1989, Khamenei expounded a "theory of terror" that has since defined his approach to internal security issues. Based on his interpretation of the Koran and the early history of Islam, he said at this meeting, "The majority of the people in the state are silent. A selfless group of individuals can make the state endure by using terror." This theory has served as the justification for assassinating dissidents in Iran and abroad and otherwise silencing anyone who has posed an ideological challenge to the regime.

In keeping with Weber's understanding that under a sultan "traditional domination develops an administration and a military force which are purely personal instruments of the master," Khamenei has relied on the intelligence services and the armed and security forces to implement his policies—to an unprecedented extent. After the overthrow of the shah in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries and left-wing groups called for the armed forces to be disbanded. Khomeini did not oblige, and instead he reconstituted the army, executing or dismissing many of the top commanders who had not already fled abroad. He also established a parallel military force, the Revolutionary Guards, to protect the revolution and ordered the creation of the Basij, an all-volunteer paramilitary organization to help with law enforcement, the policing of moral issues, and the provision of social services. The Revolutionary Guards developed air, naval, and ground capabilities in parallel to those of the conventional army, and they assumed command over the Basij. Still, Khomeini frequently and openly opposed its involvement in political affairs. As a charismatic figure and an established senior cleric with a solid base among the religious establishment and the pious masses, he hardly needed the military's backing.

Khamenei, on the other hand, lacks such credentials—so much so that the conservative Association of Seminary Teachers, in Qom, refused to endorse him as a senior cleric until 1992, when the Revolutionary Guards surrounded its headquarters. Thus, he desperately needs the military's support. He has also long been interested in military and security work. He was Khomeini's representative in the Defense Ministry during the interim government in 1979, then worked on the military's joint staff, and later served as deputy defense minister. When the Intelligence and Security Ministry was created in 1984, while he was president, Khamenei argued that it should fall under his jurisdiction.

Over the years, Khamenei has gradually empowered the Revolutionary Guards, giving them increasing say in both the country's politics and its economy. After Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards, failed to bring victory to Khatami's main rival during the May 1997 presidential election and during the reformist era that followed, commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij increasingly mobilized against the reform movement. Karroubi, then the Speaker of the Majlis, recently described a tense exchange he had with a top Revolutionary Guards commander during Khatami's second term in office (2001-5), as the Majlis was contemplating a reform bill proposing to limit the Council of Guardians' powers to vet electoral candidates. Karroubi recounted challenging the commander, who was concerned about the bill's passing, by asking whether he would continue to endorse screening by the Council of Guardians if, say, the two reformist senior clerics Ayatollah Yusuf Saneii and Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili were on the council. "If these two are appointed," the commander responded, according to Karroubi, "we will have to move to Bangladesh." Moreover, according to an official source cited by the Emrooz Web site, a reformist site connected to the Mosharekat Party, last February, then Police Chief Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (now the mayor of Tehran) contributed to the disqualification of candidates for the Majlis elections of 2004 by making unauthorized statements about the candidates' commitments to Islam to the vetting authorities. More military officers found their way into the Majlis at those elections than ever before, and men with backgrounds in the military or security forces also became councilors in the local elections that followed.

The Revolutionary Guards have been empowered even more during Ahmadinejad's presidency. Iran's military budget has doubled since Khatami's era, to almost five percent of the country's GDP. Most of Ahmadinejad's appointees once held posts in the regular military, the intelligence services, or the public prosecutor's office. Khamenei has named members of the Revolutionary Guards to head the state broadcasting organization. Although the election law states explicitly that no military officer can be involved in any stage of the electoral process, Brigadier General Alireza Afshar was nonetheless assigned to head the Interior Ministry's election headquarters for the 2008 Majlis contest, and many military officers served on the elections' executive or supervisory board. Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of staff for the armed forces, warned before the parliamentary elections in March that reformists "must not be allowed to find their way into the Majlis again and to repeat their past performance," adding, "These factions and individuals, who are supported by [U.S. President George W.] Bush, do nothing but fulfill U.S. interests, and Bush sees them as guarantors of U.S. interests. Has the Iranian nation not already tasted this bitter shame once?"

The military's involvement in the economy has also increased significantly and is now officially sanctioned. Many long-standing disputes over the Revolutionary Guards' allegedly illegal economic activities have been whitewashed. Members of the force have been granted oil contracts or have made major profits under questionable real estate deals. Since the 1990s, the Revolutionary Guards, the regular armed forces, and law enforcement officers have financed large-scale construction projects in the residential suburbs in northern Tehran. Before Ahmadinejad was elected president, the local authorities had refrained from issuing permits recognizing the buildings' completions, which made it impossible for the owners to secure legal deeds. But after Ahmadinejad came to power, and conservatives replaced reformists on Tehran's city council, the municipalities awarded permits for all the relevant buildings, and those involved have made huge profits.

The implications for the economy are not good. Companies controlled by the security forces are increasingly gaining access to low-cost loans and credit, but they tend to be bad borrowers, which has contributed to the banking system's problem with outstanding loans. In early 2008, the Majlis approved a bill for the establishment of the Basij Construction Organization, a move that would hand over economic projects from the private sector to the Basij, further enlarging an already bloated state bureaucracy and hurting the economy.

With such thorough interdependence between the state administration and the security forces, one may wonder who controls whom. In fact, the extensive infiltration of the Revolutionary Guards by Khamenei's network has seriously undermined the Revolutionary Guards' independence. The late Khomeini used to confine himself to appointing the Revolutionary Guards' top commander; Khamenei appoints even brigade commanders himself. All of this suggests that Iran is not a military dictatorship or a garrison state but a latter-day sultanate.


Given Khamenei's hold on power, it is safe to expect more continuity than difference even if Ahmadinejad loses next year's presidential election. This is especially true in the realm of foreign affairs: Ahmadinejad's blustery rhetoric aside, the defining features of Iranian foreign policy have been more or less constant over the past three decades.

Critics of Ahmadinejad say that he has made the country vulnerable to military attack (by the United States or Israel) by adopting foolhardy policies and making unwise remarks. The standoff between the Western world and the Iranian government is indisputable, and the possibility of a military attack is very real. But what is Ahmadinejad's part in all this? Much as the late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi did, Khamenei keeps foreign policy under his control. According to the Iranian newspaper Etemaad Melli, Sadeq Kharrazi, a former deputy foreign minister under Khatami, in 2007 told a Newsweek reporter who had asked him who really ran Iran, "The Americans should not try to get around the [supreme] leader by speaking to other officials. Talking to the Iranian state means talking to the leader. He knows about every word that is exchanged in negotiations. Iran's domestic policy may be dispersed, but its foreign policy is extremely centralized."

One long-standing feature of Iranian foreign policy has been tense relations with the United States. This relates to U.S. support for the shah and Washington's role in the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. Relations hit a low point with Khomeini's endorsement of the 1979 occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line. According to Iranian officials today, Washington struck back by instigating Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in September 1980, which, after an eight-year war, left Iran with nearly half a million dead and $1 trillion worth of damages. It took the U.S.S. Vincennes' attack on Iran Air flight 655 in 1988 for Khomeini to "drink the cup of poison," as he famously put it, and accept the UN resolution establishing a cease-fire with Iraq.

After the war and Khomeini's demise, Tehran, under the new leadership of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rafsanjani, decided that ties with the West should improve. Despite some small progress at first, relations quickly soured again in the 1990s, with the systematic assassination of Iranian dissidents in Europe and the discovery of missiles on an Iranian ship near Belgium. In early 1997, Iran found itself once more at risk of a U.S. military attack. On June 25, 1996, a bomb explosion killed 19 U.S. soldiers and injured about 400 at a U.S. air base in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. The FBI believed Tehran was behind the operation, and according to William Perry, the U.S. secretary of defense at the time, the Pentagon reportedly drew up a plan for attacking Iran. The risk of war was arguably greater then than it has ever been under Ahmadinejad.

But the evidence did not convince U.S. President Bill Clinton, and rather than order an attack, his administration pursued a policy of dual containment. According to Hassan Rowhani, formerly secretary of the SNSC, this approach had six features: imposing economic sanctions on Tehran, blocking its access to foreign loans, stopping the transfer of sensitive and advanced technology that could be used by the military, keeping the Iranian government from gaining access to modern weapons to strengthen its defense foundations, preventing it from using nuclear energy (even for peaceful purposes), and using propaganda and psychological warfare to discredit it. After the reformists' victory in May 1997, it did seem as though a new era in bilateral relations might begin. "When Khatami attended the UN General Assembly in 2001, which had been designated as the year of the dialogue of civilizations," Nabavi, a reformist parliamentarian at the time, explained in an interview earlier this year, "conditions were more favorable for talks between the two countries" than they are today. But after the UN meeting, Clinton reportedly waited outside the men's room to shake Khatami's hand but gave up when Khatami lingered inside. Fearing that the reformists would get credit for reestablishing ties with the United States (a move that would have been widely popular inside Iran), Khamenei had opposed the meeting.

Still, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Tehran cooperated with Washington. Welcoming the fall of the Taliban, a longtime enemy because of their extremist Sunni views and their attacks on Afghan Shiites and Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan, Tehran helped the U.S.-led coalition form a new Afghan government at the Bonn conference. Even after Bush's famous "axis of evil" speech and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, Tehran made a conciliatory gesture. After coordinating the move with Khamenei, Kharrazi, then the Iranian ambassador in Paris, delivered an unsigned letter to the Swiss embassy in Tehran suggesting that the Iranian government would contemplate recognizing Israel, reining in the region's radical organizations, and proposing a security plan for the Persian Gulf. But the Bush administration, drunk on its quick military victory in Iraq, disregarded the offer. All sections of the Iranian regime, including Khatami and the reformists, interpreted the brushoff to mean that after Iraq, it was Iran's turn to be invaded by the United States.

Whereas Tehran took few serious steps during either Rafsanjani's or Khatami's term toward holding bilateral discussions with Washington, talks have recently begun under Ahmadinejad. The level of contact is due to be raised; Ahmadinejad has even said that he is ready to meet Bush. (But Bush is not prepared to meet with him.) Rafsanjani and Khatami, who were both seen as supporters of dente with the West, felt that they could not hold talks with Washington without Khamenei's official sanction for fear that Iranian conservatives would accuse them of selling out. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, is seen as both a revolutionary and a fundamentalist and is trusted by Khamenei. As for his current intentions regarding the United States, Khamenei has said, "Breaking off ties with the United States is among our fundamental policies. Of course we have never said that this breaking off of ties is forever. But the U.S. administration's conditions are such that establishing ties is currently detrimental to the nation, and naturally we will not pursue them. . . . The day when ties are advantageous, I will be the first to say that you should establish ties."


That day may be long in the making, however, given some fundamental differences between the two countries' national interests. There is the nuclear issue, for example. In a statement posted on the Expediency Council's Web site in May 2006, Rowhani, who was Iran's top nuclear negotiator under Khatami, explained that Tehran had for years been working very deliberately and very incrementally to complete the fuel cycle. That objective was established in 1989, the year Khamenei became supreme leader. Centrifuges, other necessary equipment, and nuclear technology were then brought into Iran during Rafsanjani's presidency, and the centrifuges were upgraded (thanks to reverse engineering) under Khatami. Throughout, Rowhani explained, it was the supreme leader who set the policies. After Rowhani went to Germany to talk with European officials about Iran's nuclear program in 2005, Ahmadinejad claimed that he had held these talks at his own discretion. But in September 2007, Rowhani told the Mehr News Agency, "Over the past 18 years, I have not traveled anywhere without the knowledge of and coordination with the eminent leader. On important issues, this coordination has taken place without intermediaries, and, on occasion, it has taken place through intermediaries."

Although at the end of Khatami's presidency Khamenei ordered the suspension of uranium-enrichment activities, he is unlikely to do so again. In a speech to university students earlier this year, Khamenei explained why not: "Today, whoever demands a temporary suspension from us, we tell them: 'We had a temporary suspension once already, for two years. . . . What was the use? . . . Suspension turned into something sacrosanct that Iran had no right whatsoever to touch! . . . ' And, at the end of it all, they said, 'Temporary suspension is not enough; you have to close down the nuclear business altogether'!" Even if Khamenei committed to suspending Iran's nuclear operations again, such work might not actually be halted. "It is true that we accepted suspension, but not in order to close things down," Rowhani told Etemaad newspaper in November 2007 of Khatami's agreement to halt nuclear activities in 2004. "During the suspension, we built the centrifuges, we built the Arak plant. . . . Whatever was incomplete, we completed under the shadow of suspension. The West was demanding a suspension so that we would close things down, but we suspended things in order to complete the technology." And the Iranian government was ready to go further, even under the reformist Khatami. "For my own part," Rowhani recalled, "I said at several meetings with the officials in charge of the technical side, 'Whenever you are ready for enrichment, let us know and we will break the suspension.'"

Ahmadinejad's own preferences seem simply to be aligned with Tehran's longtime nuclear policy. At a meeting with the Assembly of Experts earlier this year, Khamenei said that Ahmadinejad's role and steadfastness have been very prominent in Iran's progress on the nuclear issue and added, "The [conservative] seventh Majlis, too, unlike some people in the previous [reformist] term, really stood firm on the nuclear issue." That is, Ahmadinejad stood firm in implementing the supreme leader's orders.


Another major difference between Iran and the United States that is likely to last beyond Ahmadinejad's term is their diverging visions of the Middle East. Washington is eager to advance its interests in the region, but it has not been prepared to recognize Tehran's own legitimate security interests. Tehran has long aspired to turn Iran into the leader of the Islamic world and an unrivaled power in the Middle East and thus has been deeply involved in the politics of the region. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), a major Shiite political party in Iraq, was established by Iraqi exiles in Tehran in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has said that both before and since Khamenei became supreme leader, he has been directly in touch with him. Even while Iranian policymakers have at times collaborated with Washington in Afghanistan, they have recently been working to keep the U.S. government embroiled in the turmoil in Iraq and distracted by Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The goal, says Rowhani, is to keep Washington busy with greater priorities than pressuring Tehran.

Wise or unwise, Tehran's policy of meddling in the business of its neighbors has very little to do with Ahmadinejad; this has always been the approach favored by the supreme leader. Iranian officials have said, for example, that the 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel during the summer of 2006 was conducted under Khamenei's guidance. Larijani, once Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and a former secretary of the SNSC, described the conflict as "a very sweet and astounding moment to me" and attributed Hezbollah's victory to Khamenei: "The victory is indebted to a strategic piece of guidance by the eminent leader of the Islamic Revolution, His Eminence Ayatollah Khamenei (may God protect him), after the first week of the fighting."

Israel will remain a bone of contention between the United States and Iran. Tehran has long seen the Israeli government as the main instigator against Iran, but by calling for the destruction of Israel and denying the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad has given the world a pretext to mobilize against Iran. And yet even in this respect, he is less different from other Iranian leaders than he might seem. Khomeini used to say, "Israel must cease to exist." He did not believe that the creation of two independent states with equal rights, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, could bring peace. He distinguished the Jews from Israel but argued, "Israel is a cancerous tumor, and it has to be destroyed." Rafsanjani also repeatedly caused international uproar with statements opposing Israel's existence. And Khatami and the reformists never presented any alternative. In fact, when The Washington Post quoted Khatami as suggesting that he might be prepared to accept a two-state solution, he claimed to have been misquoted. By zealously repeating Khomeini's own positions, Ahmadinejad only makes his ideological lineage clearer.

Although denying the Holocaust has been an initiative of Ahmadinejad's, it is unlikely that he would make such a claim, which could be very detrimental to Iran, without the supreme leader's consent. Khamenei has been careful not to personally engage in Holocaust denial, but he has downplayed the effect of Ahmadinejad's fierce remarks and openly defends him. "Let's imagine that the president uses a fierce turn of phrase," Khamenei told a gathering of university students last January. "Suddenly, the gentlemen, the so-called wise men, say, 'This was a fierce remark, it will attract U.S. enmity.' No, gentlemen! U.S. enmity doesn't follow these expressions and terms. It is a fundamental enmity. . . . The Iranian nation has always had the threat of military attack dangled over it; it is nothing new."

The problems of the Middle East go far beyond such inflammatory remarks about Israel and the Holocaust and farther back than the 1979 Iranian Revolution. So long as Washington's official policy is to ensure that Israel has strategic superiority in the Middle East and Israel refuses to accept the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, perceptions among the people of the region will not change and there can be no peace in the Middle East. Bush said during a January 2008 trip to the Middle East that "Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere." But Iran cannot be held solely responsible for the quagmires into which the United States has sunk itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iraq's Baath Party, al Qaeda, the Pakistani military, and Saudi money have also played fundamental parts. To focus obsessively on Ahmadinejad is to ignore the broader set of actors and problems that have contributed to instability in the Middle East.


Next June, Iran is expected to hold a presidential election. However, given the country's structure of power and, especially, Khamenei's hold on power, it is unlikely to significantly change either Iran's domestic policy or its foreign policy. Real change will come later, and only when Iranians figure out how to move beyond the current sultanistic regime. In systems such as Iran's, the transition to democracy depends on whether reformists can find enough room to maneuver among the ruler's relationships with state bodies (especially the military), social elites, and foreign powers so as to create various social movements and then use those to inch the country toward democracy.

In the end, there is no question that diplomatic negotiations and the establishment of bilateral relations between the United States and Iran would serve the two countries' respective national interests. But such efforts ought to be carried out so as not to undermine human rights activists and democracy advocates in Iran. To date, Washington's principal concerns have focused on curbing the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and guaranteeing the strategic supremacy of Israel in the region. Meanwhile, the aim of Iranian dissidents and Iranian advocates of human rights and democracy is to bring about, through nonviolent action, a democratic system fully committed to the cause of freedom, human rights, and federalism. These actors are strongly opposed to Washington's threats of a U.S. military strike against Iran and talk of "regime change." This language and, more generally, Iran policy under the Bush administration have only strengthened the hand of Sultan Khamenei and made Iran's transition to democracy much more difficult.

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  • AKBAR GANJI is an Iranian journalist and dissident who was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006 and whose writings are currently banned in Iran. This article was adapted from Nilou Mobasser's translation of a Farsi text by Ganji posted on on February 6, 2008. Ganji's latest book is The Road to Democracy in Iran.
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