Westerners often meet with assorted officials who, they are led to believe, run Islamist Iran. They don't.
Chris Patten, the British politician who handles part of the European Union's foreign policy, complains that when talking to Iranian officials, he has the feeling that they are "messenger boys." Long before him, Roland Dumas, France's foreign minister in the 1980s, had reached a similar conclusion.
"The Iranian officials we talked to turned out to be actors playing the roles of officials," he commented years later.
In the next few weeks as a new cabinet is approved by the newly elected Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis), Patten may find himself facing a set of new "actors." But the real strings of power will remain in hands that Western diplomats never see.
Since 1979, Iran has been ruled by an occult oligarchy with a strong theocratic component. That oligarchy sees itself as the embodiment of a messianic revolution in opposition to state structures that remain to be cleansed of millennia rule by "corrupt" kings, emirs and khans.
The oligarchy controls the real levers of power, sets policies, and imposes key decisions with little deference to the governmental fa ade. That fa ade is maintained as a first line of defense for the revolution which, so the oligarchs assert, is sill threatened by internal and external foes.
At the center of the oligarchy stands the "Office of the Leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the "Supreme Guide." Under the Khomeinist Constitution, the "Supreme Guide" represents Allah's sovereignty on earth and has unlimited powers. The opening articles of the Khomeinist Constitution, approved in 1979, make it clear that the "Supreme Guide" is also the leader of all Muslims throughout the world, whether they like it or not. Thus, theoretically at least, the Khomeinist "Supreme Guide" can decide what Islam is and is not at any given time.
But that is not all.
In practical terms, the "Supreme Guide" controls the purse strings of the Iranian state, one of the richest in the Muslim world. (In the past quarter of a century the "Supreme Guide" has supervised the expenditure of almost half a trillion dollars in Iran's oil income.) He must approve the national budget and is the commander-in-chief of all armed and security forces. Every ministerial, gubernatorial and ambassadorial appointment must receive his assent. Also, each year he has a cool $1.5 billion, some eight percent of Iran's average annual oil income, to play with as he pleases.
Next to the "Office of the Leader," the most powerful organs are the bazaar and mosque networks that have become interlinked through a cobweb of foundations, charities, corporations, theological seminaries, and associations.
Some "revolutionary foundations" have emerged as major business enterprises with national, and sometimes international, reach.
The Foundation for the Dispossessed, for example, controls assets worth $80 billion, and boasts an annual turnover of $10 billion. It is Iran's second biggest corporation, after the National Iranian Oil Company. The foundation owns banks, factories, hotels, and a string of property in Europe and even the United States. It never publishes its accounts and reports only to the "Supreme Guide." In the year 2000, the foundation reported that it had purchased interest in more than 80 foreign, mainly European and Persian Gulf, companies. These are run by branches in Dubai and Vienna. Banks owned by the foundation control almost a quarter of all banking business in Dubai.
The Imam Reza Foundation, acts as a state within a state with its chairman Abbas Va'ez Tabassi, a mullah, directly negotiating deals with foreign governments. The foundation even run its own foreign policy: as far as Afghanistan was concerned it Ismail Khan, now the "Emir" of Heart, during the fight against the Taliban in 2000.
By some estimates the revolutionary foundations and sibling outfits control some 70 percent of the national economy outside agriculture and the state-owned industries.
THESE FOUNDATIONS are linked with the bazaar merchants, who make their money in import-export, through the so-called Islamic Coalition Council led by Habiballah Asgar-Oladi, a business partner of the "Supreme Leader."
The business networks created by the revolution first took shape when the Khomeinist regime seized the assets of some 130,000 "rich people" between 1979 and 1983. A second wave of confiscations in 1985-89 resulted in the seizure of 75,000 homes and businesses owned by middle-class urban families. Confiscation of private property still continues to this day.
The oligarchy's business networks experienced a second expansion with the privatization schemes launched from 1994 onwards. In the past 10 years an estimated 200 state-owned enterprises have been privatized. Often this has meant the transfer of ownership to a small group of politicians and mullahs close to the "Supreme Guide." Senior Khomeinists, including Khamenei and Rafsanjani, are among major shareholders of over 100 companies.
The incestuous nature of these arrangements is reflected in the fact that all the 500 or so mullahs who occupy political positions are shareholders in the same corporations or serve as members of the boards of trustees of the revolutionary business foundations.
The oligarchy has also divided Iran's foreign trade among its members.
For example, trade with much of Asia, including China and Japan, is reserved for the Rafsanjani-Bahremani clan which also handles most of the foreign investment deals in the Iranian oil industry. The latest deal, providing for billions of dollars of Japanese investment in Iranian gas and oil, represents a bonanza for the clan.
The arms trade, worth some $4.5 billion a year, is almost exclusively controlled by the "Office of the Leader" that distributes contracts among favorites.
As was the case with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the Khomeinist regime uses special discounts for oil exports as a means of distributing favor among foreign politicians and other friends and for financing terrorist organizations.
In 2002 the Islamic Majlis (parliament) conducted an investigation into oil "baksheesh" deals that concerned dozens of foreign "personalities." Bizhan Namdar-Zangeneh, the oil minister, was asked to resign. He refused, arguing that the favors had been distributed on orders from the "Supreme Guide."
THE OLIGARCHY'S religious network is based on the Hojatieh, a semi-secret society initially crated in the 1950s to fight the Bahai minority. Its founding guru was Ali-Akbar Halabi, a mid-ranking mullah who, at one point in the 1980s, quarrelled with Khomeini. But its current eminence grise is Muhammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani, another mullah who once served as Khomeini's prime minister. The front organization he uses is called Society of Combatant Clergy (Ruhaniyat Mubarez).
The oligarchy also names the Friday Prayer leaders of all the 400 or so centers classified as "towns and cities" in Iran. The network of prayer leaders is controlled by a central committee of mullahs including Ali-Akbar Meshkini, Prayer Leader of Qom, and Imami Kashani, interim Prayer Leader in Teheran. Meshkini is also President of the Assembly of Experts whose task is to choose the future "Supreme Guide."
The oligarchy also offers stipends to some 20,000 students of theology, especially in the "holy" city of Qom and Teheran.
The idea is to have a foothold within the Shi'ite seminaries that have been emerging as centers of opposition to the Khomeinist ideology in recent years. The money used for that purpose is controlled by a triumvirate of mullahs: Mesbah Yazdi, Imami Kashani and Hojati Kermani.
The oligarchy runs several parallel security agencies, financed through back-channels and reporting only to the "Supreme Guide." These agencies are believed to be led by Ali Fallahian, a mullah who acted as minister for intelligence and security in the late 1980s. His second-in-command is Mustafa Pour-Muhammadi, another mullah. Members of these agencies are known as "Yaran Imam" (Friends of the Imam) and, according to unverifiable estimates, number several thousands. In every government department or state-owned enterprise one finds at least one such "Friend of the Imam."
In the field of foreign policy, while Kamal Kharrzai plays the role of foreign minister, all key decisions are taken by a small committee reporting only to Khamenei. Since 1998 the committee has been headed by Ali-Akbar Velayati, assisted by Muhammad-Javad Larijani, the man of secret talks with foreign powers, especially Britain. The committee finances several think-tanks and uses the services of foreign, mostly French, consultants, on specific topics.
Even the defense minister, Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani, is no more than an actor playing a ministerial role. Key decisions on military matters are taken by a committee headed by Ahmad Vahidi, a former general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, whose official title is "Defense Adviser to the Leader." The committee supervises the work of the regular army, the revolutionary guard, the Baseej (mobilization) and a string of other paramilitary forces. It also runs more than a dozen praetorian-style guard units estimated to number around 25,000 elite elements with absolute loyalty to the "Supreme Guide."
Within the official organs of the state, the oligarchy insists on keeping control of several key positions. These include the ministries of interior, justice and security. Other positions reserved for mullahs linked to the oligarchy include the speaker of the Islamic Majlis (parliament), the chairmen of the Council of Guardians, the Assembly of Experts, the Expediency Council and, of course, the president of the Republic.
The oligarchy has created an army of street-fighters, known as the Ansar Hizbullah (Supporters of the Party of God), who specialize in attacking unarmed protesters with chainsaws, meat-choppers, baseball bats, and other "cold weapons." Their leader is Hussein Allah Karam, who calls himself "general" and dines with the "Supreme Guide" once a month. The force, estimated to number some 15,000, includes mercenaries and militants from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
THE OLIGARCHY also controls the media. Radio and television remain under state monopoly and satellite television is banned. All the directors and senior editors of all radio and TV channels are appointed by the "Supreme Guide" whose media point man is Ali Larijani, a former minister for culture and Islamic guidance.
As for the print media, the oligarchy owns several papers, including the Jumhuri Islami (Islamic Republic) which belongs to Khamenei, plus the dailies Resalat (Mission) and Hamshahri (Citizen). The nation's two largest press groups, Kayhan (Universe) and Etelaat (Information), each of which publishes several dailies, weeklies and books, are owned by revolutionary foundations.
The chief executives and senior editors of both are appointed by Khamenei. His point man is Hussein Shariatmadari, one of the regime's best-known propagandists. Through six publishing houses, all confiscated after the revolution, the oligarchy controls an estimated 80 percent of the book market in Iran, including school textbooks.
The oligarchy has developed a network of loyalty to the regime that is estimated to include between 1.5 to 2 million people.
Regime loyalists are offered low interest loans to buy homes and set up businesses, and are given priority in quotas for pilgrimage to Mecca and the Shi'ite shrines in Iraq and Syria. The oligarchy often pays the cost of the loyalists' weddings, hospitalizations, and holidays at state-owned resorts.
The arrangement recalls the Nomenklatura developed in the Soviet Union from the 1930s onwards.
But the Iranian oligarchy has also learned something from the Chinese communists: a mechanism to advance the careers of the children of its cadres. Almost all the 500 figures in the higher echelons of the Khomeinist who's who are related to one another by blood or marriage.
In the outgoing Majlis (parliament) Muhammad-Reza Khatami, a brother of President Khatami, was Majority Leader. In the new Majlis Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, the son-in-law of Khamenei will hold that position. The families of both men are also related to each other through marriage and/or blood to the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini. (For example, President Khatami's wife is a niece of Mussa Sadr, the spiritual founder of the Lebanese Hizbullah. She is also a sister-in-law of Ahmad Khomeini, the late ayatollah's son. Khomeini's grand-daughter is the wife of Muhammad-Reza Khatami).
Teheran "revolutionary" oligarchy uses the Iranian state structures, including the parliament, as instruments for implementing policies that are decided by a small group of mullahs and their advisers behind closed doors and without the slightest accountability. This is one reason foreign, especially Western diplomats and politicians, are often led up the garden path by Iranian interlocutors playing the role of ministers or other senior officials.
For seven years President Khatami has been touring the world, babbling about Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to impress Javier Solana and Chris Patten who believed they were dealing with a decision-maker, not an actor.
Next time Patten goes to Teheran to pursue the 25-year-old "constructive dialogue" on behalf of the EU, he should ask to see the real boss.