Despite the convulsions in Tehran’s streets in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election, Iranians and the smart folks in Washington know that Iran’s presidency is not the seat of executive power. Unelected mullahs hold veto power over the decisions of the elected government, and their Supreme Leader, currently Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, must approve all political policies and make the key foreign policy and security decisions. No one can run for president without the approval of the clerics, and they routinely narrow the field to those deemed acceptable within the parameters of the Islamic Revolution.
Still, the presidency is far from unimportant. It is a critical part of the “managed democracy” that the ruling clerics have used to govern Iran for the last three decades. Khamenei himself is a former President. The job is important enough to have brought millions of Iranians to the polls on Friday, and thousands into the streets afterwards both supporters of the apparent loser, reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and members of the radical volunteer paramilitary forces who support the reelected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Yet Khamenei has now done something extraordinary to the regime’s democratic apparatus. Even though Iran’s Electoral Commission allows three days to hear challenges before presenting results to Khamenei for approval, the Supreme Leader rushed to put his seal of approval on the outcome, and warned all political factions to refrain from challenging it. His imposition of the result, just hours after the polls closed, stunned the country as doubts about the legitimacy of vote were voiced widely both inside and outside Iran.