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IRAN: McCain stumbles over Persian leadership puzzle

May 20, 2008 |  9:41 am

There's a simple test to figure out who really runs a Middle East country. You walk outside onto the streets of any major city and look at whose face is up on the billboards.

In Iran it's the face of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not the that of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who is running on his foreign policy credentials, stumbled into the labyrinthine structure of Iran's political leadership this week. At a press appearance he insisted that Ahmadinejad and not Khamenei sits at the top of Iran's hierarchy.

He got into a debate with Time magazine reporter Joe Klein that was captured below.

Below is part of the exchange:

KLEIN: According to most diplomatic experts, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the guy who's in charge of Iranian foreign policy and also in charge of the nuclear program, but you never mention him. Do you, you know, um, why do you always keep talking about Ahmadinejad since he doesn't have power in that, in that realm?
MCCAIN: I respectfully disagree. When he's the person that comes to the United Nations and declares his country's policy is the extermination of the state of Israel, quote, in his words, wipe them off of the map, then I know that he is speaking for the Iranian government and articulating their policy and he was elected and is running for reelection as the leader of that country.

Iran's a tough nut to crack. Scholars spend years trying to figure out the ins and outs of the Iranian leadership.

But as U.S. and Western officials hoping for change in Iran became painfully aware during the presidency of reform-minded cleric Mohammad Khatami, it's Khamenei — the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — who runs the show.

According to Article 110 of the Iranian constitution, the supreme leader's authorities include setting and overseeing the execution of the country's general policies, commanding the armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, declaring war or peace, appointing or dismissing those serving on religious committees and those heading the broadcast networks and armed forces.

More tellingly, the supreme leader issues the formal decree certifying the election of a new Iranian president, and has the option to dismiss or retain the president if he is judged guilty or incompetent in parliament or a court of law.

The president does, however, appoint the head of the foreign ministry.

In March, McCain he alleged that Iran was training Al Qaeda, before quickly correcting himself.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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