Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul write: The nuclear deal with Iran has sparked a vigorous debate not only in the United States, but in Iran as well. The discussion of the agreement among Iranians at times echoes the American discussion, but is also much deeper and wider. Reports in Iranian media, as well as our own correspondence and conversations with dozens of Iranians, both in the country and in exile, reveal a public dialogue that stretches beyond the details of the agreement to include the very future of Iran. And it seems that everyone from the supreme leader to the Iranian American executive in Silicon Valley, from the taxi driver in Isfahan to the dissident from Evin Prison, is engaged. The coalitions for and against the deal tend to correlate closely with those for and against internal political reform and normalized relations with the West.
The mere fact that there is such a debate says something about the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran today. Iran is a dictatorship. One man, the supreme leader, has most of the power. He is the commander in chief and thus formally controls the military, the very powerful internal militia, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and its external wing, the Quds Force. The supreme leader appoints the head of the judiciary, the head of the Iranian national radio and television organization, and most of the National Security Council — an advisory body similar to the U.S. National Security Council. He also controls tens of billions of dollars in revenues from religious endowments and foundations. And, as stated in the constitution, he is the spiritual leader of the country, combining religious and political power in one office.
And yet nowadays the supreme leader does not decide everything on his own. Some formal institutions of the Iranian regime, and a myriad of informal interest-group networks, also play a role in shaping policy, including on the nuclear deal. Most importantly, the Iranian president has some political autonomy. Through his control of the Guardian Council — a committee of 12 men that among other things must approve every candidate wishing to run for elective office — the supreme leader decides who is allowed to run for president. But once the list of candidates is determined, the vote is usually competitive, giving the chief executive an electoral mandate directly from the people. In the last presidential election, candidates ideologically closest to the supreme leader garnered only a few million votes, while the one candidate running as a reformer, Hassan Rouhani, received more than 18 million votes. Rouhani’s wide margin of victory strengthened his position as a partially independent actor within the Iranian regime. [Continue reading…]