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Obama walks fine line on Iran protests

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The administration's stance is practical - the real power in Iran rests with Khamenei, not with whoever is president - but pressure will grow for a shift in policy if the protests continue to grow and begin to threaten the government's hold on power. Already the president has come under fire - notably from his Republican presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - for abandoning "fundamental principles" of support for human rights.

Khamenei, a former president of Iran who became supreme leader 20 years ago after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, plays a defining behind-the-scenes role in Iran's complex and often opaque political system. His power derives from his support among the armed forces and the clerical establishment that presides over Iran's quasi-theocracy.

Few experts doubt Khamenei would have approved of manipulating the election results to ensure President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection or could have the influence to order a new vote, though it is unclear if his grip on power internally has been threatened by the recent events. If he remains in control, Khamenei's views would be expected to prevail on any key decisions affecting the future of the Islamic Republic, especially on the question of whether to deal with the Obama administration.

Mohsen Milani, chair of international relations department at the University of South Florida, said it appears an internal power struggle among the governing elites has burst out in the open, combined with images of public discontent. "President Obama has made one very important decision," he said. "He has not taken a position on the internal struggle."

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