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Mullahs, Guards and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics

Mullahs, Guards and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics by David E. Thaler, Alireza Nader, Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Charlotte Lynch, and Frederick Wehrey. RAND, 2010, 168 pp.

This monograph analyzes the structure of, and competing forces within, the Iranian government to inform those involved in Middle Eastern affairs. Authors include David Thaler, who holds a masters degree in international security policy; Alireza Nader, MA in international affairs; Jerrold D. Green, director of international programs at the RAND Graduate School; and Frederic Wehrey, professor of security studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Associate author Shahram Chubin is a director of research at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. Their considerable expertise is reinforced by personal experience and analysis of Iranian domestic media products and journals.

The authors highlight the potential threat to the United States posed by Iran and the difficulty in predicting Iranian intentions due to a lack of diplomatic access since the Islamic revolution of 1979. They attempt to reduce the opacity of Iranian political decision making by illustrating the dynamics of Iranian politics, including the strategic culture of Iranian elites, the formal structure of the government, how informal networks and personalities affect decision making, and how these dynamics impact Iranian foreign policy, nuclear policy, and the economy. They build successive, complementary layers of insight to produce a well-founded and accessible understanding of the Iranian political system.

Iranian elites have a strategic culture based on their view of Iran as a historically central Islamic power in the Middle East and a sense that their country has been victimized by invading powers throughout history; most recently by Western powers including Russia, Britain, and the United States. These factors produce strong nationalistic pride and an intense fear of domination by foreign powers. In contemporary times this culture exhibits itself as a global Islamic struggle against an international system dominated by the West, particularly the United States (p. 13). While this culture dominates conservative Iranian elites, a small number of pragmatist reformers seek more open international relations (p. 16). In recent times these pragmatists have been overpowered by conservative principlists who feel that the United States is under pressure and the time for a global Islamic resurgence is nigh (p. 19).

The constitutional structure of the Iranian government is described as a duality of theocracy and republicanism (p. 23). A number of institutions have overlapping powers, with the relative influence of competing institutions decided by the influence the heads of those institutions exert in the informal networks. This results in a system in which unelected theocratic bodies tend to dominate a bifurcated system under which inherent competition protects the regime against internal threat (p. 35).

A key theme is that the formal structure of Iranian government does little more than create a contextual framework in which individuals compete for wealth and prestige. Bonds of patronage and loyalty outweigh ideology and the formal mechanisms of government. This results in an ever-changing array of personal networks aligned to implement policy that benefits elites in the “Men’s Club” and their “Khodi” associates (p. 43). Policy development frequently comes in second to maneuvering for power, often resulting in political paralysis. The power of elite individuals is generally associated with one of three types of organization—clerics, the military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or financial organizations known as bonyads. Over time, the relative influence of these three groups has shifted; the clerics dominated in the 1980s, the bonyads in the 1990s, and the IRGC since 2000. Notably, younger IRGC members tend to hold pragmatic views, leading to a somewhat ironic prospect that the Iranian military may be the best ally in reducing the level of confrontation between Iran and the United States (p. 63).

After describing the formal context and informal machinations of the Iranian political system, the authors analyze how this system affects international relations and economic issues. Iranian foreign policy is driven more by attempts to bolster individual domestic positions than to address long-term strategic goals; anti-US posturing is a common technique toward this end. Iranian perception that the United States has become bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan has encouraged an increase in anti-US rhetoric by principlists aiming to discredit pragmatist reformers and make the Iranian system appear more appealing than the West to its Middle East neighbors (p. 82). The nuclear weapons issue is a prime example of debate between principlists and reformers. Reformers seek to constrain the nuclear program to gain greater commercial opportunities while principlists see nuclear weapons as a domestically popular symbol of steadfastness against foreign domination (p. 92). Even this critical international security debate is focused on domestic factional gains rather than foreign relations. It also shows that factional politics surpasses the ideological concern of clerics that nuclear weapons are inherently against Islamic ideals (p. 12).

The authors conclude that survival of the regime is the only common interest in Iran and that all other political issues involve a realist battle between factions and personalities in which foreign policy is used as a tool for domestic ends (p. 118). They encourage those dealing with Iran to couch US policy in terms that consider the Iranian point of view, to realize that Iran is not a unitary actor dominated by the supreme leader, and to recognize that attempts to assist reformists would actually undermine them by reinforcing domestic perception that they are pro-United States (p. 124). The authors conclude that, while the nature of Iranian politics makes negotiations very difficult, such negotiations are more productive than confrontational rhetoric.

Overall, Mullahs, Guards and Bonyads provides an accessible, informative insight into the nature of Iranian political leadership and foreign policy. It offers practical general guidance to diplomats, officials, and policymakers involved in Middle Eastern relations. The combination of a concise and convincing explanation of Iran’s leadership dynamics with practical advice makes it well worth reading.

Lt Col Stephen W. Young, USAF
Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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