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Who rules Iran?

Our guide to power in the Islamic Republic

It is a question that has been asked repeatedly since the 1979 revolution, and one for which there are few ready answers. Commentators gloss over the tensions between the supreme leader, the president and the parliament -- let alone the power invested in the clerical establishment, the Revolutionary Guard and the bonyads (or foundations) that make up the Iranian state.

Yet it is exactly these relationships that determine the course of Iranian politics, from its nuclear ambitions to the chances of democratic reform. In step with this week's Iran issue, we introduce you to the power relationships that lie beneath the political picture, and the events that put them in place.

The supreme leader

Khamenei (left) gives a speech next to the newly appointed judiciary chief, Sadegh Ardeshir Larijani, during a meeting in Tehran in August 2009. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The highest authority in the Iranian constitution, this dual political and religious role was made to fit Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, in the aftermath of the revolution. It is based on Khomeini's doctrine of the velayat-e faqih, or the "guardianship of the jurisconsult"; the idea that the community should be guided by a religious jurist, in expectation of the coming of the Hidden Imam.

The supreme leader should be the highest spiritual authority within Shia Islam, a marja-e taqlid ("a source of emulation") or a grand ayatollah. The 1989 succession of Ali Khamenei to the role marked a shift in the Islamic Republic from religious attitudes to authority to political expediency, as Khamenei was only a hojatoleslam, or "proof of Islam" -- a lower clerical rank.

The supreme leader has power over the army, the revolutionary guard, the Basij militia and the judiciary, primarily through appointing the leaders of each group. It was this "mini-state" that his predecessor created in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution that allowed Khamenei to establish clerical supremacy. The supreme leader's power is almost without limit: Khamenei had the final word on last year's disputed presidential election.

The president

The current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gestures while waiting for the arrival of Oman's leader, Qaboos Bin Said, at the presidential offices in Tehran on August 4, 2009. The sultan of Oman became the first foreign leader to visit Iran since Iran's controversial presidential vote last year. Photograph: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

The most powerful political post in Iran that can be called democratic, the president of the Islamic Republic is elected from a list that is vetted by the Guardian Council. The president serves a four-year term for a maximum of two terms.

The power of the president is limited in the constitution, and is dwarfed by the influence of the supreme leader, the Guardian Council and other groups that make up the political centre. The presidency of Mohammad Khatami in 1997-2005 exposed these limitations; a reformer who offered a détente with the west, his foreign policy positions could never be anything more than symbolic, and his domestic reforms were obstructed by unelected loyalists to the regime.

Notionally, the president is the functional head of the executive. The president appoints the cabinet, subject to parliamentary approval, and is an international figurehead. In practice, however, power over defence and major foreign policy decisions falls under the authority of the supreme leader.

The Majlis: the Iranian parliament

Iranian students attend a parliament session in Tehran in November 2009. Photograph: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

The Majlis represents the second democratic arm of the Iranian constitution, alongside the presidency. Its 290 members serve four-year terms. The Majlis has the constitutional power to vet and impeach cabinet ministers (and even the president), and introduces and passes legislation.

The major barrier to the power of the Majlis is the Guardian Council, which regularly bars candidates from standing, and vetoes parliamentary legislation. This constitutional deadlock has long been a feature of the politics of the Islamic Republic, and led to the creation of the Expediency Council in 1988.

The speaker of the Majlis, currently Ali Larijani, is an important spokesperson on domestic and international affairs. Even before the 1979 revolution, the Majlis was an important home of Iranian nationalism. Its roots are grounded in the constitutional revolution that took place between 1905 and 1911. Its importance should not be overlooked.

The councils

The head of the Iranian Guardian Council, Ahmad Janati, delivers the Friday prayers sermon at Tehran University in October 2009. Janati warned against an anti-government demonstration to counter an official commemoration of the storming of the US embassy. Photograph: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's executive is made up of councils with varying, low levels of accountability. The most important is the Guardian Council. This body is made up of six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six jurists nominated by the parliament from a list prepared by the judiciary -- whose head, of course, is appointed by the supreme leader.

This body has the power to veto parliamentary legislation, shut newspapers and bar presidential and parliamentary candidates. Depending on your perspective, it is either the protector of revolutionary values or the scourge of political reform in Iran.

The two other important bodies are the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, both headed by Ayatollah Rafsanjani, a key power broker in the Islamic Republic.

The supreme leader appoints the Expediency Council, a body created to resolve constitutional deadlock between the Majlis and the Guardian Council. In practice, its membership ensures a heavy bias towards the establishment. The Assembly of Experts is made up of clerics elected from a list vetted by the Guardian Council, and its nominal role is to appoint and monitor the supreme leader.

Qom

Iranians hold portraits of Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri during his funeral procession in the holy city of Qom on 21 December 2009. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A short drive south-west from Tehran, Qom centres on the shrine of Fatima, the sister of Imam Reza, on the bank of the Qom river. The clerical centre of Shia Islam, it is also an immensely important political base, due to its proximity to the capital and the overlap between the spiritual and political authorities.

Housing tens of thousands of seminarians, the city has expanded since the revolution. Large sums of money -- in the form of Islamic taxes and alms sent by followers -- come to the marja-e taqlid ("sources of emulation") who reside there. Normally seen as a conservative body, the marja are among the few with any authority to criticise the supreme leader. Some have questioned Khamenei's right to be considered a marja.

The recently deceased Ayatollah Montazeri was a prime example of the power of Qom, and his death was seen as a rallying point for reformists. Once nominated as a successor to Khomeini, he was cast out of the political centre for criticising the supreme leader, and remained a vocal critic of the government until his death.

The Revolutionary Guard

Iranians carry the coffin of General Nur-Ali Shushtari, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard's ground forces, killed near the Pakistani border, during a funeral in Tehran outside the Revolutionary Guard garrison on 20 October 2009. Photograph: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

A military force and corporation estimated to be worth billions of dollars, the Revolutionary Guard is the latest pressure point for those wishing to exert pressure on the Iranian state.

The Revolutionary Guard stands in command of the Basij, a paramilitary organisation that was established by the dictat of Ayatollah Khomeini. Its foot soldiers are known as "Basijis", a morality police that monitors the public for correct Islamic dress, makes sure that young, unrelated and unmarried Iranians are not walking or driving together in the streets, and so on.

After the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, the Revolutionary Guard moved into the US Embassy in the centre of Tehran, which was renamed "Den of Spies", and used it as a training base. It expanded to a full fighting force in the Iran-Iraq war. It was the Revolutionary Guard that captured the British sailors in the Persian Gulf in 2007.

The Revolutionary Guard is intimately associated with Iran's foundations, and is suspected of links to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has said that the force is "supplanting the government" and creating a "military dictatorship".

The foundations

Hossein Shariatmadari, the director of the hardline Kayhan newspaper group, owned by Iran's largest foundation, sits next issues of the newspaper at his office in Tehran, 16 September 2007. Photograph: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

When Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was driven from Iran by the 1979 revolution, he left behind a huge swathe of assets. The Pahlavi foundation was renamed the Foundation for the Oppressed, a charity entrusted to helping veterans of the Iran-Iraq war. Thought to be worth as much as $12bn, this foundation controls large amounts of Iran's economy. Along with numerous companies, factories and mines, the foundation owns the Kayhan and Ettela'at newspapers.

The Foundation for the Oppressed is just one of several bonyads intimately related to the Revolutionary Guard and the political centre around the supreme leader. In the context of Iranian politics, the foundations represent the vested interests of the unaccountable and the spoils of the 1979 revolution. They have thus far proved beyond the reach of the democratic arms of the state. Any attempt to pull the Iranian state away from clerical hegemony comes up against the bonyads.

This piece accompanies Henry Smith's article, "Iran: the people"

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times