The Latter-Day Sultan: Power and Politics in Iran
Of all of Iran's leaders since the country became the Islamic Republic in 1979, only Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's leader; Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president for much of the 1990s; and Khamenei have had defining influences. Despite all the attention he receives, Ahmadinejad does not even rank among Iran's top 100 leaders over the past 30 years. Khamenei supports Ahmadinejad immeasurably more than he did any of Ahmadinejad's predecessors, but Ahmadinejad is only as powerful as he is devoted to Khamenei and successful at advancing his aims. Khamenei's power is so great, in fact, that in 2004 the reformist Muhammad Khatami declared that the post of president, which he held at the time, had been reduced to a factotum. Blaming the country's main problems on Ahmadinejad not only overstates his influence; it inaccurately suggests that Iran's problems will go away when he does. More likely, especially regarding matters such as Iran's foreign policy, the situation will remain much the same as long as the structure of power that supports the supreme leader remains unchanged.
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Nor does Islam run Iran. The ruling religious fundamentalists lack a unified vision, and fundamentalist, traditionalist, and modernist versions of Islam compete for attention among Iranians. Since the 1979 revolution, religion has served the Iranian state, not the other way around. Khomeini held a resolutely sultanistic view of Islam. "The state . . . takes precedence over all the precepts of sharia," he wrote in 1988. "The ruler can destroy a mosque or a house if it impedes the construction of a road. . . . The state can temporarily prevent the hajj [the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, an important religious duty] when it considers it to be contrary to the interests of the Islamic state." Although there are, of course, both fascists and fascistic readings of Islam in Iran, these do not make Iran a fascist state. Whatever the intentions and aims of the country's ruling fundamentalists, it is the social facts on the ground that determine what kind of regime Iran really has.
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Another major difference between Iran and the United States that is likely to last beyond Ahmadinejad's term is their diverging visions of the Middle East. Washington is eager to advance its interests in the region, but it has not been prepared to recognize Tehran's own legitimate security interests. Tehran has long aspired to turn Iran into the leader of the Islamic world and an unrivaled power in the Middle East and thus has been deeply involved in the politics of the region. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), a major Shiite political party in Iraq, was established by Iraqi exiles in Tehran in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has said that both before and since Khamenei became supreme leader, he has been directly in touch with him. Even while Iranian policymakers have at times collaborated with Washington in Afghanistan, they have recently been working to keep the U.S. government embroiled in the turmoil in Iraq and distracted by Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The goal, says Rowhani, is to keep Washington busy with greater priorities than pressuring Tehran.