A unique feature of Iran’s factionalism is an incompletely unified foreign policy. Each pronouncement, posture, position, or goal of Iran’s civil government is subject to contravention by the theological government. The magnitude of rivalry between these two structures, and factions that operate under their umbrellas, combined with structural stasis, has only one historical precedent. By the specific design of Adolph Hitler, the German power structure was divided into fiefdoms that he could manipulate and control more easily than a monolith.
Other historical situations may rival, such as the period of the French Revolution, but without the stasis of Iran, where the fiefdoms are partly encoded in law, and, in 37 years, tradition. Quoting CNN, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated,
“Certainly, everybody should be aware of the fact we have been in touch with the Iranians and they have assured us that our sailors are safe and that they’ll be allowed to continue their journey promptly.”
Whether this happens provides a momentary sample point of factional struggle inside Iran. In Saudi breaks relations with Iran, I wrote,
An ayatollah to watch is Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, whose views are so extreme as to be horrible by Western standards. He is not generally popular, but the labyrinthine power structure facilitates powerful, albeit indirect, projection. His position would be enhanced by violent conflict.
Yazdi is 83 years old, but ascendant. In March, he was elected chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which chooses and can remove the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khameni. Khameni is considered by many to be weak in religious qualification. The structure of Iran’s government, and the fact that it has a Supreme Leader, is largely a consequence of Yazdi’s influence during the formative period after the 1979 revolution.
The currency of power in Iran has multiple forms. The most unusual is distinction as a religious jurist. Because Yazdi is much more distinguished as a jurist than Khameni, Yazdi possesses a currency of power that Khameni, who holds the office, does not.
This is why the release (or not) of the U.S. sailors is so significant to Iran watchers. It provides a minimal degree of insight into the the current interests and balance of power between the civil and theological factions of Iran’s government.