When U.S. President Donald Trump announced on May 8 that he was pulling the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, many observers promptly turned their attention to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to ascertain the future of the agreement. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, conventional wisdom has held that decision-making power ultimately rests with the supreme leader. Hence, with every major event in Iranian public life and foreign affairs, commentators take to the pages of newspapers and magazines to predict Khamenei’s reaction, ponder the significance of his statements, decipher his comments, and determine what it all means for the fate of the country and its place in the world. More often than not, however, the supreme leader’s statements create a framework for the country’s foreign policy rather than the precise road map that it must follow. And in creating this framework, the final arbiter of Iranian affairs is supported by hundreds of staffers and advisers.
Because the Islamic Republic is a notoriously opaque system, it makes sense that many Western observers often credit the two most visible power centers of the regime with making national security and foreign policy decisions: the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In reality, the decision-making process is not a simple top-down exercise but the result of a complex push and pull within a web of organizations, some of which are redundant. This is because as a revolutionary state, the Islamic Republic relies on a number of coup-proofing mechanisms to safeguard the regime. Competition between these institutions and infighting within the different factions that constitute them often dominate the decision-making process.
HOW TEHRAN CREATES POLICY
The supreme leader’s role lies in creating the framework within which other organizations will operate. Advised by a team of staffers, he determines the redlines and bottom lines of the country’s policies, zones of possible agreement in negotiations, and acceptable and preferred outcomes in war.
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