This article reviews national security decision-making in the Iranian context by focusing on institutions, formal process and individuals. It specifically examines the Supreme National Security Council, which formalizes and embodies the decision-making process, as well as the Revolutionary Guards, which epitomize both the influence of institutions as well as the centrality of the agent-individual. Despite the plurality of formal institutions and the existence of process, decision-making remains heavily centered on a small group of largely unelected individuals driven as much by ‘regime expediency’ as by mutual give-and-take along informal, microfactional lines. While he may have the last word, even Iran’s current Supreme Leader is constrained by these ideological, negotiational and structural factors. These key figures are closely affiliated either with the politico-clerical founding kernel of the 1979 Revolution, or the powerful Revolutionary Guards—mainly the hardliners in any case—and are instrumental in determining the discursive boundaries of national security, the scope of which this article confines to defense and foreign policy. Finally, how all this coheres in the realm of strategy has as much to do with regime survival as with the art of reconciling ends and means.
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