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 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, but he faces a different set of political challenges with the new president, Hassan Rouhani.  Khamenei has thus far supported Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts aimed at securing relief from international sanctions.  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.

Islamic Revolution 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.

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.  Rouhani pledged a break with the “extremism” that characterized Ahmadinejad’s tenure, but the mere fact that his candidacy was approved by the Guardian Council underscores the reality that his views are by-and-large consistent with those of the conservative mainstream.  Rouhani may be more inclined to adopt a cooperative diplomatic posture and to welcome private (including foreign) investment in targeted sectors than Iran’s conservatives, but he has no intention of challenging the legitimacy of the current political structure.  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.

Broad Coalition of Principalists:  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.  Some proposed making common cause with the moderates in the interest of creating a check on the president’s influence, but the need to do so diminished after Ahmadinejad came under attack from the supreme religious leader in 2011.  In combination with the pro-Khamenei United Stability Front, the Principalists control about three-quarters of the seats in the Majlis.  They appear to be prepared to give President Rouhani room to pursue his diplomatic initiatives, but represent an obstacle to political liberalization.

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.  The December 2006 election for the Assembly of Experts drew an estimated 60% of eligible voters, with popular interest fueled by the expectation that a successor to Khamenei will be chosen during the current eight-year term.  Both radical conservatives and liberals performed miserably, while the pragmatic conservative Society of Combatant Clergy (SCC) won an estimated 60% of the seats in the Assembly of Experts.  The SCC’s Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was by far the most successful candidate.

Expediency Council:  Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established this council in 1988 to mediate disputes between the Majlis and the Guardian Council.  A call by reformists in the Majlis to make the distribution of power between moderates and conservatives on the Expediency Council more representative of the moderates’ then-dominant position in the Parliament in early 2002 prompted Khamenei to reshuffle the membership to increase the bias in favor of the conservatives.  More recently, Khamenei has expanded the Council’s responsibilities to include monitoring the performance of the three branches of government, a move that was interpreted at the time as a sign of Khamenei’s wariness of Ahmadinejad’s inclinations.

Guardian Council:  This 12-member 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 employed with a vengeance—to the significant political gain of the conservative faction—since the 2004 parliamentary elections. 

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