Exactly How Powerful Is Iran's President?

Mar 9, 2017 | 20:40 GMT

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Exactly How Powerful Is Iran's President?

With a presidential race only two months away, Iran's Assembly of Experts is getting ready to weigh in on which candidates should compete for the country's highest elected office. But it is not the presidency. The assembly, in fact, is primarily tasked with selecting the successor of aging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Still, the gathering will doubtless discuss the approaching election as well.

And though Iranian politics can be somewhat unpredictable, the May 19 presidential vote probably won't be. President Hassan Rouhani is the favorite for re-election. Since taking office in 2013, Rouhani has carefully led his country through a series of difficult economic reforms and the beginnings of a diplomatic re-engagement with the West. Though both efforts still have room to fail, Rouhani can point to real progress that has been made under his watch. Iran's oil production, for instance, has jumped from 2.8 million to 3.8 million barrels per day since Western sanctions were lifted in January 2016.

For the most part, Iran's moderates and traditional conservatives agree that the country should reconnect with the global economy. But social reforms are where they differ, and many of Rouhani's proposals in this realm have been rebuffed by other segments of the government, including the judiciary. The supreme leader, however, still appears to be content with keeping Tehran's current administration in place.

Contrary to what some may think, the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might be satisfied with a second Rouhani win as well. Though the president and the IRGC's leaders disagree on a number of issues — especially social and economic reforms — the election of a U.S. administration that is hawkish toward Iran has virtually destroyed any possibility that relations between Washington and Tehran will warm over the next few years. And as long as tensions persist, so will the IRGC's clout in Iranian politics. By contrast, the IRGC's standing took a hit ahead of the rapprochement between the United States and Iran as its interests in the oil and natural gas sector and its importance as a military bulwark against Western aggression were jeopardized.

Regardless of whether Rouhani wins another term or is ousted by a more conservative challenger, Tehran's policies will not be changing much in the near future. Though Rouhani has tried to expand the powers of Iran's inherently weak presidency in hopes of better countering the influence of bodies that the supreme leader appoints, he has not made a great deal of headway. Today, the Iranian president still cannot independently set foreign policy, approve legislation or deploy the military. Instead, the country's direction is determined by overlapping — and at times, competing — institutions, with the supreme leader sitting at its helm as the arbiter of policy.