The upcoming general election in Iran is a good opportunity to explain how Iranian politics works. In principle, there’s an elected President, right now Ahmadinejad. In practice, the President is a pretty face, whose job is to represent Iran internationally and exercise minor influence on policy. The American equivalent would be electing a pundit to make statements about world affairs and pretend to lead, while reserving real power to an unelected President.
Real power lies in a Supreme Leader, for the last seventeen years an Islamist named Ali Khamenei. Technically the Supreme Leader can be replaced by an elected Assembly of Experts, but a council the Supreme Leader appoints has the right to vet candidates for the Assembly and strikes down people who come off as too liberal. The New York Times’ Krugmanite* description of the process is,
The watchdog Guardian Council, which reviews applications to run for office, rejected 240 nominees out of 490 who initially registered to run for the Assembly of Experts. Others dropped out, and so only 140 candidates remain for the 86 seats, which are elected by district. Some districts are left only with one candidate running for the seat.
The council rejected many candidates who had a lenient stance toward reformers but also some who are affiliated with Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a cleric who has often spoken against democracy.
Ahmadinejad isn’t some sensible centrist caught between the conservative Mesbah Yazdi and reformists like former President Khatami. Mesbah Yazdi is a verifiable nut who supports slavery and overall makes Ann Coulter look like moderate and civil. He’s so frightening that to look like a responsible conservative Khamenei has to sideline him, even if in private he largely agrees with his interpretations of Islam.
Khamenei is very much like Stalin, in the sense that he’s more conservative than radical, and prefers consolidating the regime he leads to starting World War Three. No matter what Ahmadinejad says, Khamenei is the person who decides grave matters of policy in Iran, and has been since 1989. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, the person with the sole authority to use them will be the one who’s been in charge for the majority of post-Revolutionary Iranian history rather than the one who sounds like a Nazi propaganda radio personality.
* I use “Krugmanite” in the same sense as “Orwellian” – i.e. in a manner frequently derided by Krugman. Here the relevant derision is Krugman’s oft-repeated claim that if someone claimed that the Earth was flat, the headlines the next day would read “Shape of the Earth: Views Differ.”