Monday, April 25, 2005

Iran's Foreign Policy & its Key Decision Makers

Iran�s Foreign Policy & its Key Decision Makers: "4/25/05
Iran’s Foreign Policy & its Key Decision Makers
By Amir Ali Nourbakhsh

Introduction

“ … Iran is the most perplexing problem ... we face, for the following reasons: It is the only country in the world with two governments, and the only country in the world that has now had six elections since the first election of President Khatami [1997].” (Bill Clinton, 11 February 2005 issue of Executive Intelligence Review)

Former US President’s remarks point out the depth of the perplexity of Iran’s decision making procedure namely the existence of parallel institutions on the highest state level and the presence of a political pluralism. This reality makes Iran a unique phenomenon in international relations. Iran’s multi-faceted decision-making process, among other factors, has been the reason for numerous crises Iran has been entrapped in since the revolution of 1979. Nevertheless, it has also made predicting Tehran’s moves almost impossible for adversaries. This article identifies the formal and informal players who impact Iran’s foreign policy decision making and elaborates on the interaction of these institutions.

There is a wide array of state, non-state and semi-state entities that influence foreign policy in Iran. The most important of these are elaborated below:


Velayat-e Faqih (Supreme Leader)
In 1989 Iran’s Constitution was revised after ten years of political struggle following the 1979 revolution. This amendment bestowed on the Supreme Leader extensive powers in many domains including foreign policy. Serious public debates on the constitutional authorities of this institution, however, started after Khatami was elected president in 1997. A major point of dispute emphasized by reformists was the issue of “dor-e batel” or “vicious circle”. The Leader appoints six of the 12 members of the Guardian Council (GC) that can veto parliament’s (majles) legislation. The other six members are appointed by the head of the Judiciary—himself appointed by the Leader. These six have to be approved by the majles. But during the course of the reformist-dominated 6th majles (1999-2004) it turned out that a pro-reform parliament could not veto conservative candidates for those six positions. The conservative members were appointed despite the majles’ opposition.

The GC also screens electoral candidates and can disqualify them for parliamentary, presidential and Assembly of Experts (AE) elections. The latter is the institution that appoints, supervises and, if need be, dismisses the Leader. Hence, the reformists’ view has been that the line-up of the AE and the GC could theoretically create a gridlock as the Leader can potentially appoint people who would not question his conduct in the AE. This has virtually been the case.

Moreover, the fact that the Leader appoints all commanders of the armed forces, Friday prayer leaders, the head of Radio and TV and can veto any decision on any level, has been a source of concern to the reform camp. The reformists’ worries are justified when taking into consideration that the heads of all these institutions are affiliated with the conservative camp.

The Leader’s office is an active institution in all affairs including foreign policy. His main foreign policy advisor is Ali Akbar Velayati who served as former president Rafsanjani’s foreign minister. Velayati’s personal ties to the Leader consolidated Velayati’s position as foreign minister under Rafsanjani and as the Leader’s foreign policy advisor today. Under Khatami, Velayati has influenced and undermined the decisions of the moderate foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi. All this underlines the Leader’s sensitivity towards foreign policy matters and that he has his ways of supervising and influencing this policy by his own trusted agents.

Notably, Khatami’s foreign policy outlook vehemently differs from that of Rafsanjani and the Leader. Since Khatami’s presidency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has often been bypassed by more powerful parallel institutions. The nuclear issue is only one case in point. This is mainly due to the differences between Khatami’s moderate attitude toward the international community and Velayati’s more security and military-oriented mind-set based on his affiliation with the conservatives who advocate xenophobia, supra-nationalism and sectarianism.

This dichotomy is also accounted for by the close affiliation between the Leader and the security and military forces who are his appointees and serve the task of safeguarding and maintaining the system. As a senior analyst close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) puts it “Some of the discussions on the nuclear issue take place exclusively among IRGC officials and they convey their conclusions directly to the Leader. These discussions are not tackled in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). It is bypassed.”

This analyst argues that although the Leader usually pays more attention to security and military forces than other entities, on the nuclear issue he has shown that he listens predominantly to views of his representative in the SNSC, Hassan Rohani. Although Rohani may be one of the advisors whom Khamenei listens to most, Velayati is known as the Leader’s official mouthpiece. This said, Velayati’s comment last September on the nuclear issue is noteworthy: “Whenever we stand firm and defend our righteous stands resolutely, they [the West] are forced to retreat and they have no alternatives. … Those who are familiar with these countries and the history of international diplomacy never count on the promises of such countries."

All in all, Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say on sensitive foreign policy issues. The extent to which his final decision will be impacted by other individuals and institutions will depend on the following factors:


• The level of his own awareness and knowledge of the issue at hand;
• The extent to which the issue is being perceived as security-oriented and related to the preservation of the regime;
• The extent to which various interest groups, official institutions and lobbies differ on the matter;
• The extent to which other powerful figures and interest groups in foreign policy matters hold a firm opinion on the issue at hand;


Against what may be the common perception, all political players including the parliament, Expediency Council (EC), SNSC, IRGC, MFA and powerful individuals can influence the position of the Leader, although to different extents. However, once the decision has been finalized, only a few dare challenge the decision.
This said, lobbying the Leader remains a priority for interest groups at least before the decision has been made. To the same extent that the IRGC managed to militarize the political situation during the 7th majles elections and exacerbate Iran’s international relations, the popular victory of Khatami in 1997 enabled the Khatami team to improve ties with the UK by assuring London that Iran would not pursue implementing the death decree on British author Salman Rushdie.
The falling out of favour of Khatami and his team with the public was mainly due to the conservatives’ Machiavellian approach. It, however, showed that the conservatives needed to damage the Khatami team’s public standing before undermining him.

Therefore, despite the Leader’s final say on foreign affair matters, the domestic power struggle, public opinion and security concerns can all tip the balance on the top decision making level.

The Supreme National Security Council
This Council was set up in 1989, following the revision of the Constitution. Its responsibilities are to determine the national defense-security policies within the framework of general policies laid down by the Leader. It coordinates political, intelligence, social, cultural and economic activities in relation to general defense/security policies and exploits material and non-material resources of the country for facing internal and external threats.

The SNSC is chaired by the President and is the key national defence and security assessment body. A conservative figure close to Velayati argued that “this Council also accelerates the slow decision-making process of Iran’s foreign policy in crisis situations.”

One of the institutions that can decide whether a major case should be forwarded to the SNSC is the President. However, the Leader can also delegate decisions to the SNSC. Although the decision making is through balloting, every decision by the SNSC has to be approved by the Leader. Upon his approval, the decision will be sent to the military section or to the foreign ministry.

Hence, the MFA is not the main decision maker. The armed forces—in particular the IRGC—have significant impact on the decision making procedure. Moreover, the line-up and the political slant of the SNSC is of considerable importance for Iran’s foreign policy apparatus.

Certain is that despite the unequal lobbying power of various factions, decision making in the SNSC—and generally in Iran—is not of cosmetics nature. It is real though not entirely democratic.

Individual Influence
Apart from the constitutional function of the SNSC, the role that Rohani has played in Iran’s post-revolutionary foreign policy underlines his personal power and influence in this domain.

According to a senior political analyst close to the foreign policy apparatus, Rohani is perceived as one of the “strongest men in Iran’s foreign policy. He is a complex character with a very good command of foreign policy issues. He never adopts an ideological view towards problems. He also serves as a balancer between intellectual and national forces on the one hand and conservatives and radicals on the other.”

Rohani has been retained in his position by the Leader for 16 years. Very often foreign officials visiting Iran have met with Rohani. The fact that Rohani was chosen as Iran’s front man on the nuclear issue instead of Khatami who is president and chairman of the SNSC shows Khamenei’s level of trust in Rohani as well as the small role the Executive Branch plays in crisis situations, especially if the mindset of the government differs from that of more powerful parallel institutions. In addition, Rohani’s personal connections to both ends of the political spectrum make him an appropriate negotiator who is less likely to fall victim to factional disputes.

Nevertheless, the reformists see the choice of Rohani as a major and unnecessary compromise by Khatami. Despite Rohani’s moderate stance on the nuclear issue the reformists believe his function as Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear issue a clear interference with the MFA and the executive branch.


The Expediency Council
The significance of the EC in Iran’s foreign policy is indirect but many-fold. Firstly, the Council is, as per the Constitution, a consultative body to the Leader on macro policies. So, the law requires the Leader to seek the opinion of this Council before making decisions on the macro-policies. Secondly, the EC’s significance is due to its constitutional authority as an arbitrator between the GC and the majles which has an impact on the formulation and pronouncement of foreign policy. On the nuclear issue, for instance, the establishment theoretically needs the Parliament’s ratification of the Additional Safeguard Protocol (ASP) because without it the Protocol is not legally binding. The EC, due to its flexible nature, could play a role in using the concept of “expediency” to pass the Protocol as ratified. Thirdly, the political influence of chairman Rafsanjani, gives the Council exceptional weight in all macro-affairs. Fourthly, the EC accommodates Iran’s most influential political figures. This also makes the line-up of the Council politically a significant factor.

An interplay of all these four factors makes this Council an exceptional institution whose flexibilities and capabilities are still being discovered by the state. Nevertheless, the EC has to adhere to guidelines defined under Article 152 of the Iranian Constitution when dealing with foreign policy issues.

A short glance at the evolution of the EC shows how factional interplays also affect the Council’s decision. This council was called into being in 1988, a year before Ayatollah Khomeini died. As an arbitrary body, it was established to settle legislative disputes between the majles and GC. The significance of the Council was marginal when first Ali Khamenei—the current Leader—headed the Council. It bore little importance because a lack of harmony between the government and majles could not have led to the empowerment of one faction under charismatic Khomeini.
After Ayatollah Khomeini's demise, Rafsanjani too was both president and head of the Council. Khomeini’s absence, however, made Rafsanjani more powerful a president than Khamenei was. The low profile of the council in light of the apolitical Iranian society prior to 1997 left unnoticed the controversy that the chairman of the executive branch also headed the institution that could veto and change decisions of the other (legislative) branch.

Some two months before Khatami was elected president the number of the Council members rose from 12 to 35 overnight. This was necessary for the council that was going to undermine the incoming government and later the (6th) majles. Prior to this change the council members appointed their own chairman, while after the new reshuffle the Leader also appointed the head of the council and its secretary Mohsen Rezai; the former commander-in-chief of the IRGC. Today, the permanent and changeable members of the Council are appointed by the Leader. The rules for the Council must be formulated and approved by the Council members subject to confirmation by the Leader. In the past eight years, the council has made legislation which is contrary to the constitution. In a sense, the death of Khomeini was followed by empowerment of two political figures: Ali Khamenei as the Leader and Akbar Rafsanjani as head of the EC. On the contrary, President Khatami is the only president among the three who does not chair the EC.

Although the EC features the most powerful figures of the Islamic Republic, in local parlance the EC is almost equal to the person of Rafsanjani. Many Iranians were not even aware of this institution during his presidency (1989-1997) as it never challenged his government or the conservative-dominated 5th majles. The common belief is that only after Khatami had been elected president did the conservative establishment use the Council as a legal channel to counter the reformists’ decisions both in the legislative and executive branches. As an arbitrary body in the legislative branch, the EC during the 6th majles even made legislation which reformists condemned as unconstitutional.

Apart from its extra-constitutional activities, the EC decisions have been a source of concern to the reformists due to its political composition. The EC’s line-up is similar to that of the SNSC in that it is dominated by the conservatives. The role of the few reformist members is more or less of a cosmetic nature. Some of these reformists have long refrained from attending EC meetings. The EC includes both those who currently hold an official position and those who are otherwise well-known and powerful personalities in the establishment.

Individual Influence
Another source of concern to the reformists has been Rafsanjani’s shift towards the conservative camp. Both conservatives and reformists seem to agree on Rafsanjani’s influence. It is agreed that Rafsanjani is one of the most influential unofficial players in Iran’s foreign policy. Apart from the Expediency Council’s constitutional authority, the EC head meets every high ranking politician who visits Iran. “The people they all want to meet are the president, the foreign minister and Mr. Rafsanjani mainly because of his character and influence,” argues Abbas Maleki a former member of the foreign ministry under Velayati.

All said, the extent to which Rafsanjani will be able to influence Iran’s foreign policy will depend on the sources of his power: Rafsanjani was among the trusted allies of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. As one of the key figures in the course of the revolution, Rafsanjani was soon recognized as a politician with exceptional capabilities to arbitrate among “insiders” and defeat “outsiders” such as seculars and nationalists. As majles speaker, a two-time president and EC chairman, he was regarded as a moderate figure until the campaigns for the 6th majles elections started in 2000.

Then, he was tackled by the majority of reformists who accused him of oppression under his presidency and involvement in the elimination of Iranian dissidents. Ever since, Rafsanjani has sided with the conservatives.

Financially, Rafsanjani comes from a wealthy family who prior to the revolution was active in the cultivation of pistachios. Today, there is more rumor than evidence on his strong economic influence. However, the general perception is that he is economically extremely wealthy and engaged in many state businesses through his relatives. Irrespective, Rafsanjani has a great bargaining power among conservatives of all walks such as the bazaar, the IRGC and the senior clergy. He is at the same time a regular Friday prayer leader in Tehran. This institution is controlled by the hardliners and is exclusively accountable to the Leader. The reformists have also learnt that he should be handled with caution; keeping peace with Rafsanjani is politically healthier than attacking him.

He has close ties with the IRGC and the hardliners. By siding with the conservatives, Rafsanjani has managed to retain his political interests. “He wants to retain his relevance and be an arbitrator between the conservatives and reformists. Rafsanjani operates in a way that different forces come to him and try to resolve their problems through him. At the same time, he is also feared by rivals as he also knows how to produce crises.”, says a political analyst close to the EC.

All this makes him a powerful lobbyist and a well-connected politician. Despite all this, after having fallen out of favour with the reformists, Rafsanjani has found it difficult to use his power to influence public opinion and gain back the full support of the reform camp. Nevertheless, among insiders, he is still a powerful figure with full control over Iran’s foreign affairs, despite the fact that the neo-conservatives of the 7th majles are now also against him as a presidential candidate.

Executive Branch: Foreign Ministry & Presidency
The role of the executive branch in Iran’s foreign policy is limited but not necessarily insignificant. It is crucial in the formal decision making process, in non-crisis situations or vis-à-vis countries that have little security significance for Iran and in cases where the system needs a show of legitimacy. This is true particularly of the Khatami era.

From a domestic viewpoint, the strong public base of the incoming government in 1997 enabled the MFA to take the lead in the foreign policy for some years. The internationalist camp in the MFA enabled the state to partly undo Iran’s failure to respond to the EU’s critical dialogue policies with Iran. The restoration of ties with the EU which had reached rock bottom in the last days of Rafsanjani’s presidency is entirely due to Khatami’s foreign policy. So, despite the Executive Branch’s limited role, two factors allowed it to improve ties with the EU and even try a rapprochement with the US. One was Khatami’s instrumental use of his popularity as a source of legitimacy. The other was the fact that détente with the West was not considered a threat to the Islamic Republic under Khatami. In 1997, the EU was regarded as one of Iran’s few channels to reduce US pressure on Iran.

The Khatami team’s upper hand, however, was only tolerated until the reform movement was domestically weakened, external crises escalated and the domestic situation was militarized as the nuclear issue intensified. So, if the reformists had been able to keep their public support by being more resistance to the conservatives, Khatami’s foreign policy team might have been more successful in its détente towards the West. Thus, the conservatives first needed to damage Khatami’s public image before taking over foreign policy.

In terms of functionality, the president’s and the MFA’s impact on foreign affairs differs from case to case. For instance, one of the areas directly impacted by the domestic power struggle is the diminished influence of the Ministry of Information. Under Khatami, this ministry has become more focused and functional. It refrains from interference in foreign policy matters.

Before the Khatami era, the Information Ministry under Ali Fallahian acted in a rogue manner. The reforms carried out by Khatami’s team in the beginning (1998-1999) reduced the impact of security forces on foreign policy as they prevented the interference of at least one security mindset in Iran’s foreign affairs. Although difficult to predict, a powerful security squad dominated by rogue elements—responsible for the serial killings of Iranian dissidents in 1998—would have certainly been counterproductive to the current political face-off between Iran and the international community.

Still today, in affairs related to neighbouring states for instance, the role of the government decreases as it becomes one of the numerous players. In such cases, the IRGC’s profile on countries that have a security significance for Iran increases.

By the same token, issues related to “Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Palestine, Egypt, US, UK, Lebanon and the IAEA fall into the Leader’s and IRGC domain. The MFA’s role in these areas is marginal. The MFA acts more effectively in areas where Iran has had less experience such as international organizations. On regional issues, the foreign ministry has almost no role. … The more ideological the issue, the greater role the IRGC and Leader’s office play.

The Executive & the Nuclear Crisis
On sensitive security issues such as the nuclear program and the development of missile technology the Khatami administration has played an insignificant role. Most probably, Khatami himself might have been uninformed about certain developments, especially with regards to the nuclear issue. In 1999, Khatami unsuccessfully demanded that the cabinet be given absolute decision-making power in all areas of policy, including foreign policy. He requested the Ministry of Finance to supervise activities of all foundations which are involved in extra-state activities. His request was denied. Consequently, a number of sensitive projects, e.g. the nuclear program, were removed from his purview. According to a spokesperson for Khatami: “Policy decisions on this [nuclear] matter are not in the hands of the government.”

Individual Influence
Despite the executive branch’s limited influence on foreign policy in general, it would be wrong to disregard the personal power of Khatami in Iran’s international relations. Observers agree that the result of the 1997 presidential election, confirmed in 2001, have made Khatami the source of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. The persistence of some conservatives on persuading Khatami to run for re-election in 2001, their criticism of his resignation threats in protest to the conservatives policies and the fact that the West still regards Khatami as a moderate personality have made him an asset to the system. While observers have entirely focused on his failures, there is no assessment on what Iran’s international standing would have been without Khatami. Despite his increasingly limited influence, Khatami is still a moderating factor influencing Iran’s foreign policy.

The developments of the past seven years have, thus, made Khatami a powerful player in Iran’s foreign policy providing him with personal links to other stakeholders such as the Leader, Rafsanjani and Rohani. Nevertheless, Khatami’s influence remains limited in comparison with that of others as his source of power does not derive from connections to traditional forces that control economic, political, security and military monopolies in Iran. On sensitive security issues such as the nuclear program and the development of missile technology the Khatami administration has not played a significant role. Most probably, Khatami himself has been uninformed about certain developments, especially with regards to the nuclear issue. Khatami’s government has thus been more involved in implementation and not design of the state’s policies. Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, the government spokesman, said in late June that Khatami’s government was out of the nuclear issue. He said: “The Government has no say in this matter. Hojjatoleslam Rohani talks [to the IAEA or Europe], decides and informs. The government just carries out what is decided and told to execute, like introducing the ASP to the majles and things like that”.


The Parliament (Majles)
The role of the Iranian parliament in foreign policy decision-making is probably the most controversial. While Mahmoud Sariolghalam, a senior political analyst, gives the majles a share of 5% , former pro-reform majles member Mohsen Mirdamadi argues that “the influence of the majles depends on the extent to which it tries to impose itself. If it imposes itself, [even] the Supreme Leader will accept its decisions.” The Iranian Constitution authorizes the majles to make decisions, so deputies are free to remark on foreign policy issues. Nevertheless, the parliamentary authority in foreign relations is confined by Article 152 of the Constitution explained earlier. Then again, the majles’ power to call for a referendum under a majority vote of deputies provides the House with a powerful pressure leverage even if the Leader has to approve the call for referendum. In addition, the 1989 revision of the Constitution diminished the parliament’s influence on foreign policy matters as both the EC and the Leader gained increased prominence in this regard.

As for the nuclear issue, however, the majles is a key instrument. Guessing has been going on as to whether the conservative parliamentarians will ratify the ASP. Although, as suggested by Maleki, Iran’s leadership is likely to find a way to convince the majles to ratify the Protocol when and if the time comes, it will still be a difficult task due to the majles' hard stance on the nuclear issue.

On 10 August 2004, conservative lawmakers threatened Kharrazi with impeachment for his alleged mishandling of Iran's nuclear dossier. Neo-conservative deputies questioned why Iran had surrendered to the demands of the Europeans and the West. This was in reference to Iran’s meeting with France, Germany and Britain last July where the Europeans continued their effort to have Iran stop work on its nuclear fuel cycle.

These majles deputies asked Kharrazi why Iran had agreed to allow tougher inspections under the additional protocol while the text had not yet been ratified by the parliament.

In addition to these threats, the parliamentary commission for national security and foreign affairs tried to force Khatami’s government to restart its uranium enrichment program. Guaranteeing deputies that Iran would never give up its right to have peaceful nuclear energy, Kharrazi stated that the parliament would have the final say on the ratification or the refusal of the protocol.

Even Rohani as the Leader’s representative was harshly rebuked by the same parliament. This shows that some hardliner deputies may even be prepared to indirectly challenge the Leader on the issue by questioning his representative. Although a direct challenge seems rather out of the question, a continuation of such approach may intimidate or delay an intervention by the Leader. This said, the role of the majles on foreign policy matters is indirect, predominantly as a pressure leverage and depends on the faction dominating it.

Informal Mechanism
Most of the informal channels influencing foreign policy are exclusive to the conservatives. These channels are controlled by a loose bond of a wide variety of individuals and organizations with political and often economic ambitions. From the factional viewpoint, this current ranges from traditional conservative individuals to hardliners and members of the armed forces. From a social perspective, individuals range from a wealthy and traditional mercantile stratum to a clerical community supported by youth from the lower-income classes. The main concern of this political current is to maintain the dominance of interest groups in the power structure through which it has managed to manipulate the country’s policies.

This state of affairs explains why often personal networks are stronger than institutional power. Through family relations, educational affiliation, common war experiences and revolutionary backgrounds individuals can use protégés in related institutions to exercise influence. However, this does not mean that lower social classes, no matter how committed to the revolution or influential in domestic affairs, can easily tip the balance in foreign affairs.

The mechanism of these groups to influence foreign policy is often indirect. Through demonstrations, chanting death slogans to certain states, the use of official and semi official channels such as mosques, Friday prayers, and state run TV and Radio, the paramilitary Basij or IRGC gatherings, these mainly xenophobic forces can make their voices heard both domestically and internationally. This is while internationalist forces of the Islamic Republic are deprived of means of mobilizing demonstrations and expressing themselves through the same variety of channels.

These xenophobic forces’ privileged access to media and other facilities often paves the ground for interest groups to argue that public opinion is behind their policies. Thus, by monopolizing public opinion, justification is provided for those who have an interest in radicalizing the domestic atmosphere. By the same token, if reformists manage to create a momentum against the hardliners’ interests by means of their own limited media, the conservatives will use their channels usually by accusing them of treason and foreign dependence. Given their facilities, the conservatives have been more successful in undoing efforts to promote internationalism than the reformists have been in creating such momentum.

Armed & Security Forces
Unlike the regular army, the IRGC and its security units are active in manipulating Iran’s foreign policy. Officially, the IRGC’s input to foreign policy is through its commander’s membership in the SNSC. In areas with an impact on Iran’s defence policies, the IRGC has its own perspective. But in contrast to what is generally perceived, the IRGC, like all other political groups, needs to struggle for its opinions. According to Maleki, “the problem is that due to [Khatami’s] foreign ministry’s weak operation, its officials are trying to blame others for the ministry’s poor conduct. Whenever the MFA has acted strongly others have complied. ... IRGC does not have a big say in foreign policy matters.”

On this issue, the conservatives and reformists seem to agree. Mirdamadi argues along the same lines. In Iran’s foreign policy, “if the [Foreign] Ministry acts weakly, other players take over.” Hence, it can be deduced that the IRGC does not necessarily have full influence on the Leader in foreign policy matters. However, in issues where he has “no concrete opinion, those forces who are closer to him, such as the armed forces, may have a better chance of tipping the balance to their liking, although not always and not entirely." Notably, the nuclear issue is certainly among those areas where Khamenei does indeed have a strong opinion of his own.

Nevertheless, the official and less formal interferences of the IRGC and its paramilitary subsidiary, the Basij, in Iran’s foreign and domestic affairs through their press, unauthorized demonstrations, threats and Friday prayers have been evident in the past years. Although officially, their input is “only” through a single vote in the SNSC, the following examples clarify how informally the IRGC can manipulate foreign policy in Iran:

• The IRGC flexes its muscles at advisory meetings with the Supreme Leader and the presidential office.
• It carries discussions with the majles’ foreign and security committees.
• In Iran’s defence policies where the Khatami administration has emphasized détente vis-à-vis another state, military commanders have weakened this détente by xenophobic speeches attacking and threatening Western forces. The Judiciary which subscribes to the same mindset has often annulled the government’s efforts to reduce international pressure on Iran’s human rights conditions. For instance, the attacks on the US tourists’ bus in 1998 after Khatami’s efforts to reduce tensions with the US are among the numerous cases where vigilantes have undermined Khatami’s détente.

Hence, the assessment that the IRGC enjoys only one vote in the SNSC regarding foreign policy is correct in terms of the formal decision-making process. However, the IRGC and like-minded institutions—the Judiciary, State Radio and TV, some hardliner dailies, Friday prayers and Ansar-e Hizbollah—strongly influence the entire decision-making, lobbying and negotiating procedure until the eventual decision has been pronounced. On defence, military, and operational matters, such as the nuclear crisis, the IRGC has a dominant position, while the army’s role remains marginal. In any issue that has a policy formulation aspect, the IRGC is important. The difference with the army is that the IRGC regards itself as the owner of the state. All this makes the IRGC much more than an institution with one formal vote on the SNSC.

Individual Influence in the IRGC
Personal relations and influences of Iran’s military figures are of considerable importance in foreign policy matters. For instance, the former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, Mohsen Rezai, who now serves as the secretary of the EC was removed from his position after Khatami came to power. His replacement, contrary to what many believe, was not necessarily a consequence of the reform movement. Certain conservative forces were considering Rezai as a future politician and potential presidential candidate. Moreover, given his increasing personal power, his leave from the IRGC made the Guards more submissive to Leader Khamenei. Rezai was a powerful personality who received his influence from his revolutionary record under Khomeini. This is while his replacement, Yahya Rahim Safavi, and his hard-line deputy, Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, receive their power through the direct decree of Mr. Khamenei.

This said, Safavi’s direct influence on foreign policy as IRGC head is limited and subject to Khamenei’s approval, while Rezai—who still enjoys support in the IRGC—is seated in a Council under the supervision of Rafsanjani who is one of the country’s most powerful men in foreign policy. Being promised support as conservatives’ presidential candidate, Rezai has ceased being a potential military leader in exchange for attaining a strong political position.

Hence, with Rezai out of the IRGC, this institution is now run by one of the Leader’s protégés. This fact firstly reduces the number of institutions that think independently (independent thinkers) and secondly, adds to the number of personalities who have a master-apprentice (morid-moradi) relation with the Leader.

A comment by Zolqadr clarifies. He was asked whether the Basij had a special policy for Iraq. He replied: “We are awaiting the country’s foreign policy decisions. We are entirely obedient to the foreign policy decisions of Velayat-e Faqih and the Supreme Leader. We always listen to his orders and we carry out his order with all our hearts. Now we are awaiting his orders.” This is while, Rezai, during the last years as Commander-in-chief of IRGC, had numerous conflicts with the Leader because of Mr. Khamenei’s appointment of his protégés to positions within the Guards.

Defence Ministry
Iran’s Defence Minister, Ali Shamkhani, is also one of the few personalities who plays a significant role in Iran’s foreign policy. Conservative-leaning Shamkhani admits that among the military forces, “some believe power means war mongering, while others see giving concessions as equivalent to peace. I choose a way in between which is active deterrence.” Shamkhani’s role as a facilitator between military hard and soft liners is possible because of his personal link to the Leader. Otherwise his attempts to arbitrate between the two poles would not have been successful.

Originally an Iranian Arab from the Southern province of Khouzestan, Shamkhani received his reputation as a war veteran who at the same time was able to control the Arab speaking population during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Today, as one of the Leader’s trusted figures, Shamkhani is one of the Ministers whom Khatami accepted reluctantly. However, Shamkhani has been trying to mediate between the administration and other armed forces such as the IRGC which has acted without the administration’s approval on foreign policy matters; albeit at times in a rogue fashion.


The choice of Shamkhani adds to the number of second generation revolutionary elite who are becoming more influential in the decision-making process but think at the same time in line with the Leader’s foreign policy doctrines or, in other words, have a morid-moradi relationship to him.

Internal Affairs of the Armed Forces
The armed forces officially do not receive orders from the defence ministry. Their internal decision-making procedure is through interaction with other military forces. Their views are expressed in the EC and considered in the macro-policies of the state. Upon approval by the Leader, these policies are forwarded to the armed forces. The role of the defence ministry in formulating defence policies lies in a committee of the SNSC headed by the Minister of Defence. Moreover, within the armed forces, there is also a supreme council where the defence minister is a member enjoying one vote. All this is part of the multiple decision-making entities which make coordination with the foreign ministry more difficult both due to the large number of the institutions involved and factional challenges.

Armed Forces & the Media
As for the impact of conservative media on foreign policy, one could refer to a couple of periodicals such as Jomhouri-ye Eslami, Resalat, Keyhan and Ya Lesarat. All four promoted a militarization of the domestic scene following the 7th majles elections, hoping it would result in a clamp down on reforms.

Following Maleki’s classification, Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-charge of Keyhan, is one of the personalities who exert informal influence on foreign policy issues. As for the media, in Iran there is a concern (among political players) that Keyhan might tackle an issue. “Many activists try not to be targeted by Keyhan. The daily’s conduct, however, is influenced by the character of Mr. Shariatmadari.” Argues Maleki.

During the past years, the reform camp has condemned Shariatmadari as an ex-intelligence and IRGC agent responsible for the violent interrogation of many analysts. Rejecting all allegations as pure fabrication, Shariatmadari does not deny his power to crush the “enemies of state”. He is appointed by the Leader as head of the Keyhan Institution and the daily newspaper and considers himself a life-time ally of the Leader. Most of Keyhan’s attacks on reformists have been based on security issues and charges of defying Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC. According to Maleki, “it is known that Keyhan defends revolutionary values. Even if it is wrong, people agree that Shariatmadari is defending the revolution. … Keyhan characteristically takes a critical view on everything. When asked why, he [Shariatmadari] says criticism makes the decision makers think twice before acting. This forces them to consider more carefully the consequences of their decisions. Keyhan today remains one of the most die hard supporters of Iran withdrawing from the NPT.

The audience of Keyhan mainly consists of hardliners from the para-military Basij, IRGC families but also die hard supporters of the system who believe in the concept of Velayat-e Faqih. Keyhan, but also Friday prayer leaders with whom Keyhan often works in tandem, have been successful in shaping the opinion of this social layer, especially on the nuclear issue. Keyhan’s reflections can be seen in the demonstrations of lower income youth after Friday sermons. Keyhan may well relent—however reluctantly—to decisions on the top level regarding the nuclear issue. Nevertheless, it has a manipulating role in the mindset of the radical Basijis and IRGC affiliates who may not accept as easily as Keyhan top decisions, if found to be against revolutionary values.

Keyhan may not have a direct impact on foreign policy decisions, but certainly serves as leverage against the moderate attitudes of the government making certain decision making procedures longer, more difficult and occasionally impossible to make. Keyhan evening daily was one of the first institutions that called on the authorities to consider withdrawing from the NPT. In Shariatmadari’s own words: "The joint statement shows the true nature and objectives of America and its (European) allies to deny the Islamic Republic access to nuclear technology. We shall no doubt reach the point where in order to safeguard our sovereignty and interests, exit from the NPT as the only logical and legal choice. This is a decision we should have made much earlier. It is not too late. ... Fortunately, the fundamentalist 7th majles is determined not to approve the Additional Protocol and one might hope that it will also consider getting Iran out of the NPT.” These statements clearly show how Keyhan influences the opinions of its readers, like-minded officials and majles deputies. That Shariatmadari is an appointee of the Leader gives Keyhan the possibility to claim it represents the Leader’s views, although the Leader also has more moderate representatives.

Despite his obedience of the system’s final decision, Shariatmadari certainly ranks among those players who independently develop their own political mindset and may even challenge the leadership’s decisions. Shariatmadari’s Keyhan is a powerful instrument in manipulating Friday prayers, Basijis and Ansar-e Hezbollah, but can also influence and intimidate ranks on higher levels, not only but especially among the reformists. The reformists consider Keyhan and its affiliates as part of what they call the Leader’s strategy of “nasr-e beh rob’e” which means victory “through intimidation”.

Conclusion
The seal of approval on foreign policy decisions lies with the Supreme Leader.
Firstly, his exclusive right on the decision of many state affairs, including foreign policy, is founded in the Iranian Constitution. The 1989 amendments bestowed upon the institution of the Velayat-e Faqih even more rights than Khomeini constitutionally enjoyed.

Secondly, the line-up of the key institutions that play a chief role in Iran’s foreign policy decision making are important factors in this regard. By accommodating powerful figures, the EC reduces the number of players in the decision making process. Each of these figures could have potentially been a manipulator in top decision making had they acted independently. Today, all these actors are encouraged by the EC's enhanced authorities and are therefore able to reach a consensus and project their decision collectively through the Council. In a sense, the constitutional amendments that enhanced the authorities of this Council increased incentives for Iran’s top elite to opt for consensus rather than individual or rogue behaviour which would have challenged the Leader’s position.

Thirdly, the political developments of the past eight years have reinforced the Leader’s authorities. The line-ups of institutions such as the EC or the SNSC enhance possibilities that the final decision will be in line with the Leader’s mindset. The political developments of the past years not only gradually weakened the full steam activities of the Khatami team, but also curtailed to an extent the powers of those conservatives who were emerging to new power monopolies. These are independent thinkers like Mohsen Rezai. Hence, the outcome of political events since 1997 has been that the Leader-loyalists have outnumbered the conservative independent thinkers within the decision-making forums.

In addition to all this, Khamenei’s standing gives him the authority to occasionally call on his advisors to reconsider their views, if he does not entirely agree with a proposal which he would reluctantly veto. In the past, the reformists’ public standing has been used to pressure the hardliners in the same way that the military establishment has been engaged to intimidate the reformists to tone down their criticisms. In most cases, however, the latter has been the case, which has been in the interest of the Leader.

All this, however, does not mean that he makes all the decisions. The Leader’s high position and his power to delegate authority to other players make him the target of all formal and informal interest groups, lobbyists and pressure leverages. Hence, despite all his prestige, constitutional and political powers, he still finds it difficult and is often reluctant to step out of the “agreed” framework and veto matters which go against the majority votes of the other main players. However, he would do so, if he found it necessary. Note, the majority of these forces do not necessarily reflect the national majority.

The rules of engagement are becoming, however, more difficult to follow. Iran’s perplexing decision making system is made more complicated by a number of socio-political and economic factors. The existing level of political pluralism, political and economic interests of a wide array of not like-minded elite, public opinion, the international community and superpowers’ power projection are among these factors. Therefore, it is not too far-fetched to argue that Iran’s only foreign policy and national interest constant has been the survival of the regime.

As decision-making becomes difficult, players like Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Rezai and Shariatmadari privately disagree with each other. This is exactly where the domestic infightings come in. Each player has his own pressure leverages, be it the public opinion, the international community, pressure groups and rogue elements. Victory, obviously, depends on how these players can make use of their own instruments, e.g. radicalize or militarize the political atmosphere, use democratic concepts, accuse others of endangering the entirety of the system, etc. As mentioned before, the more security-oriented the situation is perceived, the easier for the hard-line forces to gain an upper hand.

All in all, the decision-making process in Iran’s foreign policy could be summarized by the following points:

1. The Leader certainly has a dominant role in the decision making procedure.
2. Decision making in Iran, yet, is not a façade for preset policies although it is not an entirely democratic procedure.
3. The Leader is, hence, influenced by interest groups and is more flexible than generally believed.
4. Personalities have often as much power in the decision making as institutions.
5. While the conservative personalities have the upper hand, the reformists still stand chances of influencing the final decision.
6. Ideology has ceased to play a dominant role in Iran’s foreign policy decision making.
7. Factors such as international community, foreign pressure, human rights, public standing, legitimacy, personal connections, rogue activism and pressure groups all can play important roles in the decision-making procedure though to different extents.

Final word
Mohammad Khatami has been Iran’s first president who received his power and acceptability directly and only through the support of the people without the backing of one specific influential revolutionary figure. Hence, the loss of his popularity has also paved the grounds for his weakness in making crucial decisions. Nevertheless, his experience by no means indicates that decision-making in Iran is doomed to what turned out the fate of his decisions. This is while certain forces in Iran prefer the image that Khatami’s failure proves that decisions in Iran are predetermined and cannot be manipulated. This is a political insinuation. If decisions were preset in Iran, the power struggle would not have been as harsh in the past eight years.
Contrary to what appears to be the case, Iranian politics remain highly dynamic, precarious and more flexible than many observers believe. Therefore, irrespective of who will be elected Iran’s next president, the new presidential tenure of 2005-2009 will have in store changes in the decision-making processes. This article showed how and why this is possible.

Mr. Amir Ali Nourbakhsh is a frequent contributor to many publications and conference on social and political issues in Iran. He is the editor of the political and economic monthly, Iran Focus, published by the London-based Middle East and North African Survey (MENAS Associates). Mr. Nourbakhsh wrote this article specially for the Tharwa Project. "

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