Many Iran observers believe the election outcome will be inconsequential as the real power lies with the supreme leader.
Khameini will continue to rule Iran, no matter who wins election
With the Iranian presidential elections next month, most of the attention is focused on the candidates and how they intend to handle the prevailing issues of the day - the economy, political freedoms, relations with the West and the country's nuclear programme prominent among them. Many Iran observers, however, believe the outcome, regardless of who is elected, will be inconsequential as the real power in the Islamic republic lies with the Veliyat-e-Faqih, or supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, "makes the noise, but Khamenei pulls the strings", Vali Nasr, an adviser to the Obama administration on Iran, wrote in an article in the Washington Post last year. Whether this is true or not, few doubt the supreme leader wields enormous power. He has been the country's top political and religious authority and the leader of its military since his election in 1989, on the death of his mentor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the "father" of the 1979 revolution.
Although the president needs approval from parliament to get legislation passed into law, the supreme leader can issue a fatwa. He also has the power to veto laws of which he does not approve. For the most part, Ayatollah Khamenei, 70, exerts his authority subtly and from behind the scenes, though he ventures out occasionally to make far-reaching decisions. In 2000, when parliament was debating amendments to the country's press law, which had been used to ban at least 20 independent publications that had opened since 1997, Ayatollah Khamenei sent a letter ordering the debate to be stopped because the proposed amendment was not "in the interests of the system and the revolution".
At other times the supreme leader makes his voice heard on issues that affect foreign relations, issuing a fatwa in 2005, for instance, saying the creation of nuclear weapons was "un-Islamic". Of particular interest at the moment is Ayatollah Khamenei's handling of the efforts to mend relations between Iran and the United States, a process that has popular support in Iran. So far he has responded coolly to overtures from the White House, including a message from the president, Barack Obama, to mark the Iranian new year, in which he told Iran the United States was "committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues" between the countries. Rather than issuing a warm response, Ayatollah Khamenei, in his own Nowruz speech, read out a veritable charge sheet against the United States.
"Have you released Iranian assets? Have you lifted oppressive sanctions? Have you given up mudslinging and making accusations against the great Iranian nation and its officials? Have you given up your unconditional support for the Zionist regime?" Many analysts believe that because so much of the regime's philosophy is based on hostility towards the United States, improved relations would undermine its political raison d'être, making its leaders inherently hostile to diplomacy.
Ayatollah Khamenei "is instinctively cynical" about mending relations, said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St Andrews University in Scotland. "He operates within a very particular world view, which is quite suspicious of the West." Ayatollah Khamenei was born in the northern holy city of Mashhad in 1939. His father was a cleric, as were two of his eight siblings. He pursued religious studies from a young age, eventually moving to the holy city of Qom, 150km south of Tehran, where he studied for a time under Ruhollah Khomeini, with whom he formed a close relationship.
Ayatollah Khamenei acquired a reputation for being more political than religious and became increasingly involved in agitation against the shah's regime - disseminating the ideologies of Khomeini after the latter's exile in 1964 ? and was arrested six times during the 1960s and 1970s, spending several years in prison, where he was tortured. He went on to become a key figure in the 1979 revolution and served two terms as president throughout the eight-year war with Iraq from 1980-88, before being appointed supreme leader in 1989.
Amendments to Iran's constitution that year gave the supreme leader greater powers, though analysts say this did not give Ayatollah Khamenei more authority in practice than that of Khomeini. Because of Khomeini's charisma and his role as founder of the revolution, said Farideh Farhi, political science professor and Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, his "standing above all factions was never doubted". Khamenei, however, still "has to be careful to navigate among all factions to maintain his power".
In theory, the biggest check on the supreme leader's power is the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 religious scholars that is responsible for supervising his activities. It alone has the power to dismiss the supreme leader. To date, however, the assembly has never objected to the supreme leader's decisions and its meetings are confidential. It is the support the supreme leader receives from power-wielding groups in Iran - like the Revolutionary Guards and the Judiciary ? that is at once the main source of, and the biggest constraint upon, his power.
"He is beholden to key constituents who support and buttress his position," Prof Ansari said. "Though he is by no means absolute, he is certainly the first among equals" firstname.lastname@example.org