With much being made in the international press about a possibly historic handshake between President Barack Obama and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. General Assembly this week, observers began to point out that, as significant as such a meeting would be, its meaning is very questionable.
"The opportunity for a breakthrough with Iran after 34 years of isolation is tantalizing for Obama and his foreign policy team," columnist David Ignatius wrote Sunday in The Washington Post.
"But," Ignatius said, "U.S. officials wonder whether Rouhani can make policy independent of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has been Tehran's covert-action arm in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and elsewhere."
Ignatius only scratched the surface. A reading of the Iranian constitution makes anyone wonder whether Rouhani can make policy, period.
For all the press attention he now receives as a significant player in Iran and the Middle East, Rouhani is primarily a spokesman for the government. In the West, he would be roughly the equivalent of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
Although Rouhani is the highest popularly elected official in the Islamic Republic, he nonetheless reports to the Supreme Rahbar, or Supreme Leader, of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 74. He was elected to the all-powerful post in 1989, succeeding the first Supreme Leader in the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Upon Khomeini's death, the unelected Council of Experts — around 83 mullahs — chose Khamenei as Supreme Leader and would elect his successor in the event of his death.
Under Article 110 of the Iranian constitution, the Supreme Leader is the final authority and spiritual leader, or grand ayatollah, of Iran. He has full control over foreign policy, the armed forces, and nuclear policy.
"Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government all operate under his absolute sovereignty," Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji wrote of Khamenei in the September issue of Foreign Affairs. "Khamenei is Iran's head of state, commander-in-chief, and top ideologue."
Chapter IX of Iran's constitution defines the duties of president, which include signing treaties with other countries and international organizations, and administering national planning and the budget.
Rouhani, 64, is constitutionally permitted to appoint ministers, who are subject to approval by the elected parliament. But the elected parliament, like the elected president, can be checkmated by an unelected body.
The unelected Expediency Council can veto actions of the parliament. Members of the Expediency Council are appointed by the Supreme Leader.
Between the Expediency Council and the Council of Experts is the Council of Guardians, also unelected. Consisting of six clerics, the Council of Guardians can disqualify candidates running for office. The Council of Guardians are appointed by — you guessed it — the Supreme Leader.
In 1997, four out of 238 presidential candidates were approved for the ballot by the council. In 2009, the same year in which the rabidly anti-West President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won his second term amid widespread protests and charges of fraud, more than 400 candidates for parliament were disqualified from the ballot.
Iranian election law states that a candidate for parliament must be a "well-known political figure," a euphemism, Western skeptics charge, for a follower of the Supreme Leader.
Perhaps the most telling commentary on the "checks and balances" of Iran is found in the oath of office that Rouhani and his five predecessors as president take. Each new president, at one point, promises "to refrain from being autocratic."
All told, any handshake, conversation, or future meeting between Obama and Rouhani this week might be very important on the way to something bigger between Washington and Tehran.
But as for changing policy or beginning a dialogue this week, the president of Iran doesn't have the power to do that — only the Supreme Leader does.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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