It was conspicuous during the 29 September interview of President Hassan Rouhani by Chris Wallace that the Iranian leader was completely at ease in the tough back and forth of the session. There was nothing Wallace could do to rattle Rouhani politically or argumentatively. Wallace himself appeared surprised at the Iranian’s preparation and poise. The Iranian president, however, was well known to have been a lawyer and diplomat and this was not his first joust with a Western journalist. By the way, this type of training and experience marks many of the Iranian elite.
Perhaps the most striking assertion by Rouhani, during the Wallace interview, was that ISIS was supported and guided by Israel. This type of shocking misdirection and prevarication is not only a staple of the Iranian regime’s method of argumentation, it is used even during serious negotiations to disorient the opposing side and their typically well worked out, and even game-planned positions and counter positions. This is a brilliant device for creating surprise blocks to traditional Western logical technique.
This device has been honed to a fine edge by the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Following this same line there is no doubt where the final power lies in the Iranian hierarchy. A proposed Geneva meeting during the G-7 between President Trump and President Rouhani was sharply cancelled by order of the Supreme Leader. The Ayatollah’s power to override actions or proposed actions by the Iranian president is both a good and bad thing for Rouhani. The latter can use the possible action by the Supreme Leader as a convenient method to get out of a diplomatically difficult situation. It is constitutionally mandated that the Supreme Leader actually restricts the actions and power of the Iranian President. “Sorry, the boss says no can do no matter how much I would like to!”
Aside from the constitution, the effective power of the Supreme Leader really lies in the operative instruments reporting to him and his office. These include the internal security services, the special Al Quds force within the IRGC, and the politically instrumental Council of Guardians. It goes without saying that external intelligence operations of the various instruments are well monitored. Disagreement on various political paths is accepted as long as it is not openly contrary to the perceived wishes of Ayatollah Khamenei. This process has been said by many observers of Iranian affairs to create an effective illusion of democratic process. The trick for an Iranian politician, or group of politicians, taking a view contrary to a previously approved line is to gain consent from one of the operative instruments in an advisory position. This allows for an expansion of decision-influencing process. It may seem rather convoluted in organized Western terms, but it all fits right in with the Persian mindset.
The religious hierarchy ultimately controls the status of the Supreme Leader and that is an arcane process that certainly is not in the hands of Iran’s electoral system. Perhaps sometime in the future this might change, but there is little sign of an imminent breakdown. There may be an increase in the power of the military, but that instrument too is very carefully monitored – and pampered.
Meetings, conversations and even agreements with President Rouhani must be judged in light of the foregoing. While deal-making with the Iranians may be possible, it requires far greater acceptance and approval than is usually thought of in Western terms. It can be done, but not without a long “give and take.” That’s the Persian way!