Who pulls the strings of power in Iran?

Intricate, multi-layered and opaque, the power structure of Iran’s regime can be a challenge for insiders to understand, let alone the world outside.

While the country of almost 90mn appears to be under the strict control of a single cleric, the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite has in fact entered a period of significant change. As factions prepare for the battle to succeed the ageing supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime’s future is increasingly being shaped by its armed forces and hardliners.

The political flux has become a crucial factor in Middle East security, as Iran’s decades-long enmity with Israel reached dangerous new heights in recent weeks. As the crisis unfolds, one crucial question for the region is: who decides for Iran?

Does Khamenei hold ultimate decision-making power?

Khamenei is unequivocally the top decision maker for all big domestic and foreign policy. The 85-year-old belligerently rejects what he perceives as the tyrannical west, notably the US and Israel.

He says the Islamic world should be self-reliant in its struggle for justice, and has championed Iran’s foreign and military policies, as well as a contentious nuclear programme he says is purely for peaceful purposes, citing religious texts.

But Khamenei is also pragmatic and has heeded guidance from his predecessor and mentor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that the regime’s survival outweighs the importance of even core Islamic principles.

President Ebrahim Raisi follows Khamenei’s guidelines closely © Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Khamenei takes calculated risks when adversaries cross his red lines. After the US in 2020 killed Qassem Soleimani, his favoured Revolutionary Guards commander, he authorised a missile attack on a US base in Iraq that injured more than 100 troops but caused no fatalities.

His latest gamble — a departure from the established approach of “strategic patience” — followed a suspected Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus on April 1. Deeming it an assault on Iranian territory, Khamenei approved Iran’s first direct strike on Israel in retaliation, launching a barrage of more than 300 missiles and drones.

Even this attack, however, was seen by Tehran as designed to limit escalation by avoiding heavy casualties. Iranian diplomats sent messages that warned of the retaliatory strikes, while stressing the aim of deterrence. After Israel’s counter strikes on Friday, Iran’s public response was muted, signalling the regime wanted to avoid a full-blown conflict.

Despite his age, Khamenei remains active, delivering lengthy speeches and appearing in public sometimes without his usual stick to show off his physical health. A keen reader of global history, philosophy and literature, Khamenei seeks to make Iran, which fought a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, the pre-eminent regional power.

He keeps hardliners in important positions and has voiced satisfaction with President Ebrahim Raisi, who was elected in 2021 on a record low turnout that was seen as a reflection of public discontent. Unlike previous heads of government, Raisi has not challenged the supreme leader and has closely followed his guidelines, perhaps to better position himself as a successor.

Is Khamenei under the sway of the Revolutionary Guards?

Khamenei controls the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and has helped transform them into Iran’s most formidable institution. Guards commanders are loyal to him as head of the armed forces and to his ideology.

But he does listen to their advice, including on non-military affairs. The Guards serve as Khamenei’s primary apparatus for exercising power in Iran and the Middle East. Their influence runs through foreign policy, the economy, cultural and social matters and domestic politics, including the monitoring and ruthless suppression of political dissent. In essence they are a powerful shadow government.

Scarred by Iran’s struggles to secure cutting-edge military technology during its long war with Iraq, Khamenei committed the Guards to a strategy of asymmetric warfare, finding different ways to fight more conventionally powerful foes. Iran has empowered proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, supported Palestinian militants and developed long-range ballistic missiles, drones and speedboats to confront its enemies.

Iranian missiles seen during a military parade
Iran has empowered proxy forces across the region but has also developed missiles © via REUTERS

Are Khamenei and the Guards pushing for full-scale war with the US or Israel?

Taking a confrontational stance throughout his nearly 35-year tenure, Khamenei has sought to systematically fight and undermine the US and Israel — but without triggering an open war.

Supporting proxies such as Hamas and Hizbollah across the Middle East, he has vowed to eject the US from the region. While US intelligence has found no evidence that Iran took part in Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, Tehran has backed attacks on Israel over its retaliatory war in Gaza.

But Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Iran’s most important proxy, has exercised caution in its skirmishes with Israel, repeatedly firing missiles over the border while stopping short of all-out conflict.

Khamenei’s caution over a full-scale war is also true for some top Guards, who typically served during the Iran-Iraq war and suffered injuries or lost comrades. When Iran launched missiles at Israel on April 13, it was the Guards, rather than the foreign ministry, which summoned the Swiss ambassador to convey a message to the US, signalling Iran’s reluctance to escalate hostilities, according to one senior official. 

What role do Iran’s other clerics play in decision-making?

Iran’s clerics provide religious legitimacy for the country’s rulers, including the supreme leader, who is required to be a Shia Muslim cleric. But most of them have little influence in day-to-day decisions. The Assembly of Experts, comprising 88 clerics, is responsible for appointing the next leader upon Khamenei’s death. It is also supposed to monitor his actions, although it has never exercised any oversight.

Mostly concentrated in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad, clerics prioritise religious studies and focus on cultural and social issues such as the role of women, the enforcement of the hijab, restrictions on music and the prohibition of alcohol.

A cleric walking across a square in the holy city of Qom
Many clerics, whose popularity is declining, are based in the holy city of Qom © Najmeh Bozorgmehr/FT

The popularity of clerics, whose numbers have increased to hundreds of thousands of individuals studying and working in state-funded institutions, has recently been in decline. Some of the more influential clerics control business trusts and the public often blames them for economic hardship. Clerics have even been attacked in the streets.

Historically, clerics maintained their independence from government institutions through their strong ties to wealthy bazaar merchants. Both groups played important roles in helping Khomeini secure power in the 1979 revolution.

How much influence do businesses have?

Iran’s economy is predominantly state run and reliant on crude oil revenues. The private sector has intentionally been sidelined to prevent businesses from wielding too much influence or advocating political change, business leaders say.

The regime has established its own networks of loyal individuals and quasi-state businesses to manage trade and industry, particularly in important sectors such as oil, gas, petrochemicals, steel and cars.

The private companies that do exist in areas such as food production tend to be small. While some technology firms have emerged, Iranians believe they are strictly controlled to stop them becoming too large or powerful.

Corruption has surged in this opaque economy. Although Iranian leaders have blamed individual misconduct rather than systemic flaws — and periodically prosecute prominent figures — many citizens are unconvinced.

Where do reformists and centrists stand in Iran’s political landscape? 

Since 1997, Iranian liberals and centrists have tried to persuade Khamenei to allow political and economic reforms. But reform initiatives from Mohammad Khatami, the former president, were resisted by hardliners who labelled them as schemes to undermine the Islamic republic and align it with the west.

Reformist candidates were blocked from contesting presidential and parliamentary elections. The regime remained steadfast even when reformists sought compromise and backed the centrist Hassan Rouhani, who won two presidential terms and helped achieve the 2015 nuclear accord with world powers that eased sanctions in exchange for controls on Iran’s nuclear programmes.

Iranian MPs burn a US flag in 2018. Hardliners prefer to form partnerships with Russia and Chin
Iranian MPs burn a US flag in 2018. Hardliners prefer to form partnerships with Russia and China © Iran’s parliament News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

The failure of that accord, torpedoed by former US president Donald Trump, helped the hardliners cement their control over all branches of the state. At least three large rounds of anti-regime protests across the country since 2009 have been crushed, with hundreds of deaths.

Reformists want to reduce tensions — with the US and across the Middle East — to prioritise economic development and attract foreign investment. But hardliners see this as a Trojan horse that would allow America to change the regime in Tehran. The hardliners favour partnerships with Russia and China, arguing US sanctions against Iran help the country to enhance its self-reliance.

Khamenei had associations with some of Iran’s reformist figures both before and after the revolution. But he has not recently allowed them into any positions of influence, banking on hardline loyalists instead to protect his vision for Iran, both before and after his death.

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