The Power of an Iranian President

He will be but one of many voices, but he will still be able to impact Tehran's foreign policy.

Looking toward Iran’s June 14 presidential election, Western leaders wonder whether it will have much impact on the current impasse over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. After eight years of facing off with the provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will the next president be easier to deal with? Or will he be another hardliner prizing resistance over compromise? And, in a governing system led by an unelected cleric and comprising multiple power centers, can any president seriously contribute to a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue? The short answer: although no Ahmadinejad successor is likely to consider a deal that halts all Iranian uranium-enrichment activities, the next president could play an important role in bringing about an agreement with the West. The extent of his influence, however, depends on the nature of his personality and his power networks.

The question of presidential power is part of a broader conundrum revolving around the general distribution of political power in the Islamic Republic that bedevils Iran’s adversaries as well as Iranians themselves. Despite what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s title may suggest, “Iran is not the Soviet system,” explains Walter Posch of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Instead, the supreme leader must take into account the interests of a dizzying array of formal and informal power networks that comprise the Islamic Republic’s system and upon which he must rely for support. These include familial, political, security, religious and economic networks that operate both "behind the curtain" and openly through their affiliated political factions. One super-network, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), makes up an important pressure group influencing the nuclear issue.

Thus, for a president to influence the supreme leader on the nuclear issue, he must compete with the IRGC and many other groups. Historically, Khamenei has sought buy-in from as many interest groups as possible in order to maintain balance and ensure that policies are carried out smoothly without any side attempting to spoil the outcome. In fact, much of his job has entailed playing these groups off of each other to prevent any one from becoming strong enough to challenge him.

This competition among multifarious networks precedes any consensus decision on foreign-policy matters. Following a period of lobbying, important national-security issues are brought before the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the government body tasked with providing a recommendation to the supreme leader. In the past, Khamenei has almost always gone with the council’s decision. Although the president is officially the chair of the SNSC and is accompanied at meetings by several of his cabinet members, he still must contend with other government officials who will strongly defend their views based on the interests of their particular networks.

Despite these constraints, a president still can exercise influence on the nuclear issue. His chief tool is rhetoric, which can affect both public opinion at home and the international community’s perceptions of Iran. Thus, his pronouncements can set the conditions within which the Islamic Republic must operate. For instance, it was Ahmadinejad’s speeches at home highlighting uranium enrichment as an inalienable right and accusing his predecessor of unnecessarily caving to Western demands that made the nuclear program such a nationalistic issue. At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s confrontational behavior on the world stage contributed to Iran’s isolation and heightened tensions over its nuclear program.

At times, presidents also have leveraged their popularity and personal networks to take on a more substantive foreign-policy role than usual, especially early on in their administrations. But such efforts can be undermined when coalitions develop fears that the president’s success would be to their detriment. Even a president such as Ahmadinejad, who shares the supreme leader’s worldview, raised concerns within the conservative establishment after attempting to conduct his own unilateral foreign policy, contravening the Islamic Republic’s established procedures.

Given such constraints on the executive’s role in foreign policy, should Western leaders expect movement in nuclear talks once the new president is sworn in? It depends on Western expectations. No Iranian president, no matter how influential, will advocate that Iran give up its uranium-enrichment activities. The Islamic Republic has invested too much, financially and politically, in the nuclear program to give in to such maximalist demands.

But a new president could bring a change in tone. While this may seem minor, it could significantly improve chances for a successful accommodation in which Iran agrees to limit its enrichment activities and allow intrusive monitoring of its nuclear program. In diplomacy, language and public behavior can play important roles in easing tensions and allowing diplomats to sell compromises to their domestic constituencies. As Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team told me, if the new president “knows the language of diplomacy and employs a tactic of cooperation, he could help pursue a nuclear arrangement rather than a nuclear confrontation.”