Ever since Iran’s mullahs rose to power in 1979 and established an “Islamic Republic”, they have worked to consolidate power both at home and abroad. Given Iran’s growing belligerence toward its neighbors, persistent crackdowns on domestic dissidents, and frightening nuclear ambitions, foreign analysts often talk about the possibility of regime change in Tehran. But there is very little understanding of the obstacles to dethroning the mullahs — namely, that the entire power structure and most of civil society is centralized under the personal control of the Supreme Leader. In this way, Iran’s dictatorship is every bit as entrenched as North Korea’s, making the idea of traditional regime change a pipe dream.
The mullahs created a regime — an entrenched revolution — specifically designed to resist change or reform, adopting a unique theocratic structure that uses both Islamic ideology and brutal force to maintain absolute power.
The official name of this system is Velayat-e Faqih (“custodianship of the clergy”) and it places all religious and legal authority in the hands of the Supreme Leader. What this means, in both theory and in practice, is that the Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei (like Ruhollah Khomeini before him) plays a direct role in all the country’s affairs; and no individual, group, or committee in the country has the right to question or hold him accountable.
Khamenei exercises his authority through a morass of official-sounding bureaucratic organs, including the “Guardian Council”, “Expediency Council”, “Supreme Council of Leader, “Supreme National Security Council”, “Strategic Council of Foreign Policy”, and of course a “Council of Cultural Revolution”. What one must understand is that the membership of every single one of these organizations is personally approved by the Supreme Leader. Indeed, any individual, or coalition of individuals who might serve as a check on his absolute power is, in fact, completely beholden to Khamenei’s whims, making him the most complete and powerful dictator on the planet — perhaps exceeding even Kim Jong-un in unrivaled control of North Korea.
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