Iran’s Puppet Presidency

Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and serves on the board of the Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at the Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington, DC and is a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu. Follow Dr. Rafizadeh at @majidrafizadeh.


ali-khamenei-6a71cbfcd6f06487Iran’s presidential election has invoked significant excitement among some liberal Western and Eastern analysts; the enthusiasm lies in the hope that the next president of Iran would be a reformist, rather than from the hardliner, traditionalist, or Islamic principlist camp. These analysts argue that as the hardliners and principlists – who are loyal to the Supreme Leader and oppose any dialogue with the United States, Israel, and the West – are unwavering in their pursuit to obtain nuclear weapons, if a reformist comes to power, they can resolve Iran’s human rights abuses, support of terrorist groups, and nuclear defiance towards the international community. However, this argument lacks logical and sophisticated depth. The premise behind these kinds of statements by analysts are flawed for the following several crucial reasons.

First of all, Iran’s political structure is strictly run by institutions which were established by the founding father of the Islamist state, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. These institutions include the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, the Basij (with more than 7 million members, the Basij is the largest volunteer paramilitary militia in Iran), and Ettela’at, Iran’s notorious intelligence agency. All of these institutions are directly monitored and guided by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to whom the high officials and commanders directly report. Moreover, these institutions receive a high number of benefits from the Supreme Leader and are extremely loyal to him. This kind of shrewd political apparatus can be compared to that of North Korea under Kim Jong-un.

Iran’s foreign and domestic policies are also controlled by the Supreme Leader, under the guidance of the aforementioned powerful institutions. As a result, Iran’s presidency can be regarded as a peripheral, shallow, depthless, and perfunctory position – a superficial political figure that is only granted the authority to set the tone in national and international platforms for the Supreme Leader. When it comes to making policies, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran – although also from the gilded circle of the ruling clerics – is a powerless figure.

Secondly, climbing the political ladder in the Islamic Republic of Iran requires specific personal characteristics and qualifications. If a political figure’s ideologies, policies and tendencies do not comply with those of the ruling cleric and the Supreme Leader, he/she will be thwarted from succeeding in their political career. Tactics that have been utilized to accomplish this include imprisonment, torture, blackmailing, and assassination. As a result, the political figures that have been capable of running for presidency are those who have significantly proven their loyalty and compliance with the Islamist revolutionary ideals. The most significant ideals include antagonism towards the United States and Israel, imposing Shari law throughout the country and across Iran’s borders, arming terrorist militia groups, supporting Assad’s sect-based and police regime, and seeking to become a regional and international hegemon.

Thirdly, and more fundamentally, even if those political figures who challenge the Supreme Leader are able to register for presidential candidacy, they will inevitably become immediately disqualified by the Guardian Council – an authoritarian body that consists of 12 non-elected members who are directly or indirectly appointed by the Supreme Leader. As Kambiz, a 24-year-old computer engineering student at Tehran University, told me: “I am not going to vote. Many of my friends will not vote too. All these candidates are the same. We trusted Khatami (the reformist), but he was one of them and did not stand for us. Rafsanjani, Mashaei and the rest [of the conservatives] are all supporters and beneficiaries of the current corrupt and theocratic regime.”

Fourthly, major issues that the Islamic Republic of Iran faces – such as enriching uranium and confronting Israel and the United States – have been matters of consensus across all of Iran’s political spectrum, among hardliners, principlists, centrist, moderates, and reformists alike.

When considering the major political and ideological spectrums, all the members of the reformist, hardliner, principlist, centrist, and moderate political camps share identical policies and strategies. The only difference lies in the shrewd political language that each camp uses. While the hardliners – such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and current presidential candidate Jalili – publicly attack the West and use inflammatory and provocative language to express their intentions, the reformists are much more sophisticated political statesmen, employing softer tones in order to manipulate the international community and achieve the objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Supreme Leader.

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  • William James Ward

    Iran was a friend to America before Jimmy Carter helped destroy the
    Shah’s government and now Carter has enabled the dark forces that
    call America the Great Satan, Islamists calling the kettle black. The
    present leaders of destruction are on a path of war that will engulf
    all of the Middle East and the World unfortunately before America is
    rid of Carter on steroids……..Obama……………………..William

  • Ken Kelso

    In order to run for the Iran Presidency, you have to be approved by Jihadist Ayatollah Khamenei.
    Only Ayatollah Khamenei backed Jihadists are allowed to run for the Iranian Presidency.
    Mir-Hossein Mousavi who really won the Iran elections in 2009 is an Islamist. He just wasn’t Islamist enough for Ayatollah Khameneni.
    Remember, Mir-Hossein Mousavi was Prime Minister in the 80s under Ayatollah Khomeini.
    So Ayatollah Khamenei just assumed he would be like Ayatollah Khomeini.
    When Khameneni realized that Mousavi wasn’t Islamist enough for him in the 2009 elections, he took the election from him in 09 and put him under House arrest.
    So anyone who ran in this Iranian election for Presidency is an Ayatollah backed Jihadist.
    If someone wanted to run for the Iranian Presidency and was anti Ayatollah Khamenei and wanted Iran to be secular again, that person would not be allowed to run for the Presidency. Khamenei would bar that person and put he or she under house arrest or have them killed.

  • Sarah

    So why the Western leaders are so hopeful and why Iranian people are so happy?