Iran's Leadership Changes May Alter Policy

Over the past week, there have been two key changes in the leadership of the Iranian government.

First, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, the military force charged with defending Iran's Islamic system of government, was replaced.

Then, just a few days ago, Iran's Assembly of Experts chose a new chairman. This is the body of clerics that determines who will be the supreme leader — Iran's most powerful political and religious figure.

Opinions differ on what impact these changes will have on Tehran's policies.

Iran's government is complex, a set of interlocking power centers often working at counter purposes and pursuing different policies.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the strongest voice. His comments are broadcast widely both inside Iran and around the world. The president is elected by the people every four years.

But the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is the most powerful figure in Iran. The Assembly of Experts, 86 clerics who were elected to a 10-year term last December, chooses and can remove the supreme leader.

A few days ago, former President Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was chosen to be the new chairman of the Assembly of Experts. The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard was also recently replaced.

Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes these choices represent a setback for the hardline policies of President Ahmadinejad.

"This latest move in which Rafsanjani was named head of the Assembly of Experts, and you have kind of a more pragmatic individual who has been named head of the Revolutionary Guards, looks like the more pragmatic voices are trying to combat the rising fundamentalism of President Ahmadinejad," says Sadjadpour.

Rafsanjani certainly represents a more pragmatic force in Iranian politics in favor of engagement with the United States.

In his bid to head the Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani faced strong opposition, says Farideh Farhi, of the University of Hawaii.

"There was intense struggle on the part of hard liners supportive of Mr. Ahmadinejad to prevent that from happening. That did not work," says Farhi.

Whether this is merely a symbolic political development or whether Rafsanjani may now wield more influence on policy is not yet clear, Sadjadpour says.

"I don't think Rafsanjani being appointed head of the Assembly of Experts is going to make a marked impact on Iran's short-term foreign policy, but it has huge implications for Iran's future and especially Iran's future when Ayatollah Khamenei eventually dies or is removed from position of supreme leader," says Sadjadpour.

There have been rumors for some time that Khamenei is not in good health. He is 68 years old and has been Iran's supreme leader since 1989.

Abbas Milani, head of Iranian studies at Stanford University, believes these leadership changes reflect the ongoing political struggle in Iran, a kind of creative chaos typical of politics there.

"Controlled, creative, conflicting chaos in their foreign policy statements is and has been a key to their survival. This way, they say, we keep the enemy confused. This way, they say, we keep our options open," says Milani.

As for the change at the top of the Revolutionary Guard, there have been suggestions that this was in response to recent reports that the U.S. is considering putting the Revolutionary Guards Corps on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

But it appears the decision was made to appoint Mohammed Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guards, before those reports surfaced in August.

Jafari was long commander of the Guards' ground forces. He had been head of its new Strategic Center, which has focused on the U.S. military, says Farideh Farhi.

Jafari's appointment, Farhi believes, suggests that Tehran is taking recent talk of possible U.S. military action against Iran very seriously.

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