Observing Iran – inside out

Who’s Who in Iran?

Despite all the bad-mouthing Iran gets from the West, the Islamic Republic is more democratic than most other nations in the Middle East. That’s why millions of Iranians are in the streets, demanding that their votes be counted.

Ayatullah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic revolution produced a hybrid political system combining the principle of giving the clergy ultimate executive authority with the holding of democratic elections — albeit from lists of candidates restricted by the clerics to those deemed loyal to the principles of the revolution — for parliament and the presidency.

The result was a regime comprising competing factions and personalities, achieving its own version of checks and balances by distributing power across a variety of different institutions, from structures of government to unelected councils of clerics. Even the Supreme Leader, who holds ultimate executive power, is appointed by a clerical body — the 86-member Assembly of Experts — which also has the power to remove him.

The conflict in Iran thus far has been not so much a wholesale revolt of the masses against the system as a complex struggle for power within Iran’s ruling establishment and a battle over the country’s direction.

Here’s a Who’s Who of the players who may determine Iran’s future in the unfolding drama.

Green Movement Key Players               Center figures              Right Wing Hardliners
Mir-Hossein Mousavi
Ahmad Jannati


General Mohammed Ali Jafari


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad




Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani




Who’s who in Iran

As the situation in Iran becomes increasingly volatile, we take a look at the players in Iranian society.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Khamenei is believed to back President Ahmadinejad

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is the country’s most powerful figure.

He appoints the head of the judiciary, six of the 12 members of the powerful Guardian Council, the commanders of all the armed forces, Friday prayer leaders and the head of radio and TV. He also confirms the president’s election.

Khamenei was a key figure in the Islamic revolution in Iran and a close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. He was later president of Iran from 1981 to 1989 before becoming Supreme Leader for life.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President Ahmadinejad was previously the mayor of Tehran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been Iran’s president since 2005, was actively involved in the Islamic revolution and was a founding member of the student union that took over the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. But he denies being one of the hostage-takers.

He became the first non-cleric to be elected president since 1981 when he won a run-off vote against former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in elections in June 2005.

He is a hard-liner both at home – where he does not favour the development or reform of political institutions – and abroad, where he has maintained an anti-Western attitude and combative stance on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Much of his support comes from poorer and more religious sections of Iran’s rapidly growing population, particularly outside Tehran.

Mir Hossein Mousavi

Mir Houssein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, voting
Unusually for Iran, Mousavi’s wife campaigned alongside him

The 68-year-old former prime minister stayed out of politics for some years but returned to stand as a moderate.

Mir Hossein Mousavi was born in East Azerbaijan Province and moved to Tehran to study architecture at university.

He is married to Zahra Rahnavard, a former chancellor of Alzahra University and political advisor to Iran’s former President Mohammad Khatami.

One of his closest associates and backers in this election was Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former President of Iran who now heads two of the regime’s most powerful bodies: the Expediency Council (which adjudicates disputes over legislation) and the Assembly of Experts (which appoints, and can theoretically replace, the Supreme Leader).

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Rafsanjani has dominated Iranian politics since the 1980s

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has been a dominant figure in Iranian politics since the 1980s.

Described as a “pragmatic conservative”, he is part of the religious establishment, but he is open to a broader range of views and has been more reflective on relations with the West.

Mr Rafsanjani was president for eight years from 1987 and ran again in 2005. He lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round. He has been openly critical of the president since then.

He is still a powerful figure in Iranian politics as he heads two of the regime’s most powerful bodies: the Expediency Council (which adjudicates disputes over legislation) and the Assembly of Experts (which appoints, and can theoretically replace, the Supreme Leader). He is also a wealthy businessman.

The Reformists

Mohammad Khatami
Mohammad Khatami is a long-time friend and adviser of Mir Hossein Mousavi

The Iranian reform movement is a political movement led by a group of political parties and organizations in Iran who supported Mohammad Khatami’s plans to introduce more freedom and democracy.

In 1997, Khatami was elected president on a platform of greater freedom of expression, as well as measures to tackle unemployment and boost privatisation. However, much of his initial liberalisations were stymied by resistance from the country’s conservative institutions.

He initially stood for election in 2009 but later stood aside and lent his support to Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Other key reformist figures include Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohsen Mirdamadi, Hadi Khamenei, Mohsen Aminzadeh, and Mostafa Tajzadeh.

The Revolutionary Guard and the Army

IRGC troops parade on Quds Day in Tehran
The Revolutionary Guard have influence in Iran’s political world

The armed forces comprise the Revolutionary Guard and the regular forces. The two bodies are under a joint general command.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) was set up shortly after the revolution to defend the country’s Islamic system, and to provide a counterweight to the regular armed forces.

It has since become a major military, political and economic force in Iran, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member.

The force is estimated to have 125,000 active troops. It boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and oversees Iran’s strategic weapons.

The Guards also have a powerful presence in civilian institutions and are thought to control around a third of Iran’s economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.

The Militias (basij)

Members of the Iranian Basiji militia take part in an annual military parade
The Basij serve as an auxiliary force

The Revolutionary Guard also controls the Basij Resistance Force, an Islamic volunteer militia of about 90,000 men and woman with an additional capacity to mobilise nearly 1m.

The Basij, or Mobilisation of the Oppressed, are often called out onto the streets at times of crisis to use force to dispel dissent. There are branches in every town.

The Clerics


Iranian clerics
Conservative clerics play an important part in political life in Iran

Clerics dominate Iranian society.

Only clerics can be elected to the Assembly of Experts, which appoints the Supreme Leader, monitors his performance and can in theory remove him if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties. The Assembly is currently headed by Iran’s former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is described as pragmatic and conservative.

Former President Mohammad Khatami accused the clerics of obstructing his reforms and warned against the dangers of religious “despotism”.

Clerics also dominate the judiciary, which is based on Sharia (Islamic) law.

In recent years, conservative hardliners have used the judicial system to undermine reforms by imprisoning reformist personalities and journalists and closing down reformist papers.

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