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.


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. But Khamenei doesn’t dictate the means pursued to arrive at these preferred outcomes or to enforce the redlines. Instead, his office passes on the framework (by private channels and through public statements) to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), whose mandate isn’t unlike that of the U.S. National Security Council. The former’s composition, however, is different from that of the latter in that it includes representatives from all relevant power centers within Iran’s political system. Its tasks include determining national interests and turning the framework into a policy.

The executive branch works with the SNSC to craft its agenda and turn it into actionable items in accordance with the president’s own vision for the country. The president can also offer his own policy plans, which the supreme leader can accept or reject. In such cases, the cabinet, particularly the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Intelligence and Security, at times has to work with the armed forces, composed of the paramilitary IRGC and the conventional forces, the Artesh. Here, the IRGC have the upper hand. In certain areas, such as the various regional theaters Iran is involved in, they turn the policy into strategy. This is also the case with respect to Iran’s most controversial defense programs, including its ballistic missile activities. In addition, the IRGC are in charge, along with the Artesh, of the operational and tactical levels. The legislative branch, known as the Majles, is designed to hold the executive branch accountable and to engage in lawmaking. Finally, the Guardian Council, whose mandate is somewhat similar to that of the U.S. Supreme Court, assesses the legality and compatibility of the Majles’ bills with the constitution.

The key power centers within the regime share the belief that their country must develop industrial-scale enrichment and be self-reliant in its pursuit of nuclear technology.

At each stage, some sort of consensus or at least agreement must emerge from the push and pull among the personalities, organizations, and power centers. Hence, when too much infighting occurs or various organizations or individual players don’t see eye to eye on a specific issue, the agenda can stall. This has largely been the case for President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda beyond addressing the nuclear issue and the economy—particularly as he has lost political capital and infighting has increased since the signing of the nuclear agreement in July 2015.


If the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal were successful, it’s because Khamenei provided the green light for the talks to begin. He also fixed some redlines that guided the negotiators on the Iranian side. For example, Khamenei instructed the negotiators to preserve Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and continue research and development. But he didn’t dictate the specifics of the enrichment and research and development programs, allowing the negotiators to work with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to develop the contours of these activities, including the precise enrichment capacity and the limits on enriched uranium stockpiles. Likewise, Khamenei required the negotiators to keep all of the country’s nuclear facilities open. But the negotiators were able to change the function of some facilities. The framework put forward by Khamenei was determined with input from his advisers, including individuals involved in advancing Iran’s nuclear program. Khamenei indicated during the talks that Iran’s ultimate objective is to develop industrial-scale uranium enrichment to fuel the eight or so nuclear reactors it’s currently planning to complete and operate in the future. (This would also allow the country to arrive at a bomb more rapidly should it revisit its nuclear weapons aspirations, which it ceased in 2009, and to continue its policy of nuclear hedging.) The key power centers within the regime share the belief that their country must develop industrial-scale enrichment and be self-reliant in its pursuit of nuclear technology. As a result, during the talks, Iranian negotiators were adamant about continuing research and development and the inclusion of the so-called sunset clauses, which enabled the country to remove the limitations on its nuclear infrastructure after a number of years, thus normalizing the program as that of a regular non-nuclear weapon state under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini take part in meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Za
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini take part in meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels, May 2018. 
Yves Herman / REUTERS

Today, as power centers within Iran decide the fate of the nuclear deal in light of the United States’ withdrawal from it, they assess the pros and cons of continuing the agreement’s implementation with the remaining parties against the backdrop of their stated objective of developing such enrichment capabilities. These power centers will negotiate among themselves the fate of the JCPOA, the scope and speed of the nuclear program, and the means the country must pursue in order to attain economic recovery, just as Foreign Ministry officials negotiate these very elements with their counterparts from China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Khamenei has already set the framework for these talks by allowing the negotiators to engage in a new process, whose objective is to preserve the JCPOA without the United States. The goal of the talks and the redline fixed by Khamenei lie in receiving “guarantees” from the Europeans that would make it worth Iran’s while to continue preserving the agreement without U.S. participation. The SNSC is likely using this framework to develop a more precise road map. And in developing its road map, it is likely working with the Foreign Ministry officials who are negotiating with the world powers. Finally, members of the Majles oversee the process and have introduced bills to restrict the government’s room to maneuver. The armed forces aren’t directly involved in the negotiations, but their input is significant in several key areas. These include tangential issues that aren’t directly part of the JCPOA but still matter to the world powers, particularly Iran’s missile and regional activities.

Similarly, as the Rouhani government seeks to reform the country’s economy in order to generate a much-needed economic recovery, the entire system is involved in the process. Khamenei’s green light was critical to allowing some degree of reform, and he has often stated what officials are allowed and not allowed to do to bring about economic recovery. He has deemed sanctions relief critical to the process, for example. The president has undertaken some reforms that have met resistance from the IRGC, rendering the process slow and challenging. It’s worth noting that the quasi consensus among these powers that nuclear negotiations would be the best approach to sanctions relief, and thus to economic recovery, was key to bringing Tehran back to the table in 2012 and paving the way for the JCPOA.

Likewise, if over the next few months and years the regime decides to resume elements of its nuclear program that had been limited or stopped by the deal, or to revive its nuclear weapons program, it’s likely to do so within a framework established by Khamenei and created with input from the country’s armed forces, particularly the IRGC, as well as representatives from Iran’s nuclear sector. But the country would have to balance these nuclear aspirations with its economic needs. To this end, Khamenei’s framework for the nuclear program’s future will likely to take into account the input of economic advisers and allow the country to resume nuclear activities without generating an international crisis that would impede its economy.

Iran’s national security decision-making process is notoriously intricate. Even the supreme leader’s decision-making is guided by input from individuals and groups representing different power centers. As U.S. policymakers address the challenges stemming from Iran’s nuclear program following Trump’s announcement of withdrawal from the JCPOA, they must understand how their Iranian counterparts think through and formulate their own policies.

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  • ARIANE M. TABATABAI is Director of Curriculum and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in the Security Studies Program and an International Security Program Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
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