Ali Khamenei: The supreme religious leader wields veto powers that make him the ultimate authority on all political matters, and he also exerts direct control over key branches of the security services. Khamenei’s influence has rested on his ability to play the role of impartial mediator in social and political disputes, which was undermined by the bias he displayed in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 election. His subsequent very public power struggle with Ahmadinejad helped to repair the cracks between hard-line and pragmatic conservatives, and Khamenei has thus far supported President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts in the diplomatic arena. However, any significant opening of the domestic economy to external competition could threaten the economic interests of the supreme leader’s most important political allies, including the Revolutionary Guards, whose support will be crucial in the event that his position is threatened.
Hassan Rouhani: The lone moderate among the six candidates who contested the 2013 presidential election, Rouhani emerged the victor by winning slightly more than 50% of the first-round vote. Upon taking office, Rouhani pledged a break with the “extremism” that characterized Ahmadinejad’s tenure, but the mere fact that he was not disqualified by the Guardian Council underscores the fact that his views are mostly consistent with those of the conservative mainstream. The president is a technocrat and a pragmatist who has been accurately described in the western media as the “ultimate insider.” He has impeccable revolutionary credentials, and has served in most of the top institutions of the Islamic republic, including five consecutive terms in the Majlis, and seats on the Supreme National Security Council, the Expediency Council, and the Assembly of Experts. Rouhani is more inclined than the conservatives to adopt a cooperative diplomatic posture and he may welcome private (including foreign) investment in targeted sectors, but he has no intention of challenging the legitimacy of the current political structure.
List of Hope: The grouping of reformist parties won 83 seats in the Majlis in the first round of legislative voting in February 2016, including all 30 of those representing the capital, Tehran, and has a good chance of emerging as the largest parliamentary bloc after run-off elections are held in April. Even if the List of Hope falls short of an outright majority, the strengthened position of the reformists, which will be bolstered by the support of the Front of Prudence and Development, a coalition of minor parties that includes Rouhani’s Moderation and Development Party, will provide the president with a solid legislative core around which to build majority support for reform measures on a case-by-case basis. That said, vetting of electoral lists by the conservative Guardian Council resulted in the disqualification of a significant number of reformists, leaving vacancies in the List of Hope that were filled by more conservative candidates who did not make the cut for the other two main lists. For that reason, the scope for substantive reform may not be as great as the headline numbers might suggest.
Principlists Grand Coalition: The so-called “pragmatic conservatives” expressed strong opposition to President Ahmadinejad’s efforts to increase executive control over economic policy and, to a lesser degree, his belligerent posture in the diplomatic arena, and some even proposed making common cause with moderate reformers in the interest of creating a check on the president’s influence. In combination with the pro-Khamenei United Stability Front, the Principlists controlled about three-quarters of the seats in the last Majlis, but the results of the first-round legislative elections held in February 2016 suggest that the coalition will lose both its majority and its status as the largest bloc in the Parliament. Since Rouhani’s election in 2013, the Principlists have given him some room to pursue his diplomatic initiatives, but continued to pose an obstacle to liberalization of the domestic economy. The coalition will not be able to block measures on its own, but the conservatives will continue to resist reforms that threaten the interests of their base of support, and the ability of various unelected bodies to throw up roadblocks will enhance the obstructive potential of the conservative minority in the Majlis.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps: The IRGC (or Pasdaran) is a coherent, well-funded, and well-trained military body that answers directly to the supreme religious leader, and its influence has increased as a result of the split within the country’s conservative forces during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Inherently conservative, the IRGC’s role as defender of the Islamic revolution makes it a threat to individuals and groups perceived as undermining the cause. The IRGC is a potential king-maker, and its extensive economic interests will be a primary consideration if it is forced to choose sides in a power struggle.
Assembly of Experts: The Assembly of Experts consists of 86 male clerics who are the leaders of the Islamic Republic. The members serve eight-year terms. Entrusted with the broad mandate to decide on matters related to the country’s leadership, the assembly has the authority to revise the constitution and pass on the credentials of Iran’s supreme leader. Elections for the Assembly of Experts were held concurrently with the first-round legislative elections in February 2016, and a total of 46 candidates endorsed by the People’s Experts, an alliance headed by the moderate former president, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, and affiliated with the List of Hope, won election to the body. Significantly, 19 of those winning candidates were endorsed only by the People’s Experts, which would suggest that they are firmly in the reformist camp. Given the advanced age of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who turns 77 in July, there is a fairly good chance that the body elected this year will inherit the task of choosing the supreme leader’s successor. The selection of a more moderate figure to replace Khamenei would greatly increase the potential for far-reaching political and economic reforms further down the road.
Guardian Council: The 12-member Guardian Council, composed of six clerics and six lawyers, has authority to screen and modify all laws passed by the Majlis before submitting them to the supreme religious authority for his final approval. Dominated from its inception by conservative clerics, the Guardian Council has often used its power to amend legislation that it deems to be at odds with Islamic standards. The council also oversees elections and may disqualify candidates, a power it has employed freely to the advantage of political conservatives.