RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There have been two key leadership changes in Iran over the past week. First, the head of the Revolutionary Guard, the military force charged with defending Iran's Islamic system of government, was replaced. Then Iran's Assembly of Experts chose a new chairman. That's the body of clerics that determines who will be the supreme leader, Iran's most powerful political and religious figure.
NPR's Mike Shuster reports on how these changes might affect Tehran's policies.
MIKE SHUSTER: 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 biggest megaphone. 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 supreme leader is chosen and can be removed by the Assembly of Experts - 86 clerics that were themselves elected to a 10-year term last December.
A few days ago former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was chosen to be the new chairman of the Assembly of Experts. A few days earlier, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards was replaced.
Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes these choices represent a setback for the hard-line policies of President Ahmadinejad.
Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): This latest move in which Rafsanjani was named head of the Assembly of Experts and you have kind of a more pragmatic individual who's been named head of the Revolutionary Guards looks like the more pragmatic voices are trying to combat the rising fundamentalism of President Ahmadinejad.
SHUSTER: 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.
Professor FARIDEH FARHI (University of Hawaii, Manoa): There was intense struggle on the part of hard-liners supportive of Mr. Ahmadinejad to prevent that from happening. It did not work.
SHUSTER: Whether this is merely a symbolic political development or whether Rafsanjani may now wield more influence on policy is not yet clear, says Karim Sadjadpour.
Mr. SADJADPOUR: 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 the position of supreme leader.
SHUSTER: There have been rumors for sometime 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 this leadership changes reflect the ongoing political struggle in Iran, a kind of creative chaos typical of politics there.
Dr. ABBAS MILANI (Stanford University): Controlled, creative conflict and 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.
SHUSTER: 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 Guard on the state department's list of terrorist organizations. But it appears the decision was made to appoint Muhammad Ali Jaafari, head of the Revolutionary Guard, before those reports surfaced in August.
Jaafari was long commander of the Guard's ground forces. He had been head of its new strategic center, which has focused on the U.S. military, says Farideh Farhi.
Prof. FARHI: Reflective of a kind of strategic decision that has been made several years ago to prepare Iran for the possibility of the new threat, which is the possibility of American invasion and asymmetrical warfare.
SHUSTER: Jaafari's appointment, Farhi believes, suggests that Tehran is taking recent talk of possible American military actions against Tehran very seriously.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.