Iran's Supreme Leader Is Ultimate Authority

Iranian-American Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. He describes to Steve Inskeep who Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is and the extent of the supreme leader's power.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now the man who spoke today at Friday prayers, the supreme leader, is supposed to have the last word in Iran. Iranian American author Hooman Majd has written about Ayatollah Khamenei's power.

Mr. HOOMAN MAJD (Journalist and author, "Ayatollah Begs To Differ"): He succeeded Ayatollah Khamenei who was the founder of the revolution, who most Americans know from the hostage crisis and from the revolution of 1979 - people old enough to remember that. Khamenei was appointed by the Assembly of Experts.

The Assembly of Experts is a governmental body that is actually an elected body, people vote for the members of the Assembly of Experts. They're clerics, and their job is to supervise the activities and behavior of the supreme leader and actually does have the power to impeach him.

But Khamenei is the ultimate authority in Iran. He is the commander in chief of the armed forces. He makes policy, foreign policy, particularly, and national security policy. He does not get involved in the day-to-day affairs of state, the day-to-day running of the country. That's what the president does. He rarely interferes. He's above it all.

INSKEEP: Does that put him above the law?

Mr. MAJD: It doesn't, no, because the Assembly of Experts has the authority to impeach him. It doesn't, in the same way that, you know, Congress can impeach a president here, it is very unlikely that the Assembly of Experts would impeach him. But it doesn't put him above the law, no. He is in fact supposed to be fair. That's one of the criteria of the Supreme Leader's job is to be fair.

And if he is shown to be unfair, there are enough votes in the Assembly of Experts where they say that he has not been fair on any one specific thing -and these are ayatollahs who themselves are jurists - they can remove him or change an order that he has given.

INSKEEP: So, Ayatollah Khamenei is the top guy in the…

Mr. MAJD: The top guy.

INSKEEP: And, of course, we're looking here at a disputed presidential election. What's the president's relationship, his power relationship, to the Supreme Leader?

Mr. MAJD: He is the CEO of the country and the supreme leader is the chairman of the board. He's supposed to run the country. He has a lot of leeway. He appoints ministers, he manages the economy. The president manages the day-to-day affairs of state. The mood of the country becomes - the mood of the government is very much dependent on the president and not on the supreme leader.

INSKEEP: Because the president is making more public statements and…

Mr. MAJD: Yeah, and he's managing things. He's running the ministries. If you have something to do - if you, as a foreigner, want to get a visa, for example, you're going through the president's system. If you want to report on something in Iran, you're going through the president's system, not through the supreme leader's system.

So, whoever the president is has an effect on the day-to-day lives of the Iranian people, from every aspect. From the economy, from their job, from what they do, how the laws are interpreted, how society functions, even in terms of whether, you know, the government cracks down on social behavior, which they've done much more under Ahmadinejad.

But he doesn't control the military. He doesn't control the security apparatus of the country - that's the supreme leader. He has an effect on it. He's supposed to meet with the supreme leader on a regular basis, and they do. For the supreme leader, the president is his man running the country and depending on the bent of the president. Whether he's a conservative or a liberal, then the supreme leader kind of, you know, moves in that direction a little bit, as he done in the past.

INSKEEP: One of the things we try to understand - Iran's power structure and how it relates to the supreme leader, the final arbiter of major things, major issues here - how much does he really have to care about the will of the people?

Mr. MAJD: I think very much. I think he's got to care a lot because his credibility and the entire system is based on the support of the people, ultimately. And despite what we think, I still think the majority of Iranians are comfortable. It's a very religious country. We may not be happy about that, but it's a very religious country, particularly outside of the big cities.

And people generally respect, and have done up until now, the supreme leader. And that authority that he has, that ability to be, you know, the supreme guide, leader, whatever you want to call it, comes from the people. And if people lose faith in that, then it's really over.

INSKEEP: Hooman Majd, author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," always good to talk with you.

Mr. MAJD: Thank you, Steven.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The supreme leader's long life is full of clues to the position he's taking now in the disputed election. You can find a profile of Ayatollah Khamenei on the Two Way, our blog at NPR.org. The same blog continues posting emails and interviews as we get them from people inside Iran. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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