Iran’s Political Structure

Introduction

One constant misunderstanding when examining the power scheme within Iran is the belief that the President has a comparable level of power to the U.S. President – which could not be further from the truth. One relevant example has been in recent news with Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ external operations unit, the Quds Force. For over a decade Suleimani has been ensuring that Iran’s foreign influence remains strong; most notably, assisting Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and Nouri al-Maliki. Suleimani’s decision making authority is at such a high level in some capacities that he has more power than Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani.

Thus, in order for a government to engage in diplomatic exchanges with the Islamic Republic it is vital that said government fully understand how power is distributed throughout the branches of Iran’s government, who the key players are within each branch, what level of decision making authority they possess, and based on certain domestic and/or foreign events which branch/individual has the most influence and authority on deciding how the Islamic Republic should respond.

With that said, this article will be a two part presentation. The first will provide a basic description of each branch of Iran’s government. Part two will follow up with a deeper analysis, attempting to explain the detailed intricacies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Branches of the Islamic Republic of Iran

iri gov

(Chart provided by BBC News)

The key shows three color coated arrows: the green arrows point to the branches of government that the Iranian citizens can vote for: President, Parliament Members, and the Assembly of Experts. The blue arrows point to the branches of government that are not elected but rather appointed by another branch of government. The blue arrows also show areas where one branch has the power to approve or deny certain individuals from taking up office in another branch – this will be explained in more detail below. The doted orange arrow shows that the Guardian Council has the authority to vet individuals who would like to  run for President, Cabinet Member, Parliament Member, and Assembly of Experts.


Electorate (gazingargaan) گزینگرگان

The electorate is the total number of individuals who are Iranian citizens, either living in or out of Iran, and are eighteen years or older who are legally eligible to vote for their President, Members of Parliament, and the Assembly of Experts.


President (rais jomhoor) رئيس جمهور

The President is elected for a four year term and can serve no more than two consecutive terms. Upon the end of his second term (if he is re-elected) he must wait for four years in order to be eligible to run for President again – and has the possibility to serve two more consecutive terms. However, prior to the initial announcement of presidential candidates, each individual is vetted by the Guardian Council in order to determine who may run. During most presidential election seasons hundreds of individuals officially register as potential candidates, from which only a handful are chosen. There is much ambiguity surrounding this vetting process. There appears to be no clear guideline as to how individuals are vetted, except for Chapter 9, Section 1, Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution:

The President must be elected from among religious and political personalities possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past-record; trustworthiness and piety; convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country.[1]

Although these provide some framework as to how to vet potential candidates, it does not fully capture the actual process taken by the Guardian Council. Many have argued that this process sometimes takes the form of favoritism, allegiance to party members, recommendations by the Supreme Leader, adapting to the political (domestic and international) temperament of that time, and so on. Nevertheless, once candidates are chosen and the elections begin the process is as follows:

The President is elected by an absolute majority of votes polled by the voters. But if none of the candidates is able to win such a majority in the first round, voting will take place a second time on [the] Friday of the following week. In the second round only the two candidates who received greatest number of votes in the first round will participate. If, however, some of the candidates securing greatest votes in the first round withdraw from the elections, the final choice will be between the two candidates who won greater number of votes than all the remaining candidates.[2]

And once the winner takes his oath into office, some of his duties as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran are as follows:

  1. After the office of Leadership, the President is the highest official in the country. His has the responsibility for implementing the Constitution and acting as the head of the executive, except in matters directly concerned with [the office of] the Leadership.[3]
  2. The President or his legal representative has the authority to sign treaties, protocols, contracts, and agreements concluded by the Iranian government with other governments, as well as agreements pertaining to international organizations, after obtaining the approval of the Islamic Consultative Assembly [or Parliament].[4]
  3. The President is responsible for national planning and budget and state employment affairs and may entrust the administration of these to others.[5]

Due to the limitations of this article the full list of duties and responsibilities of the President will not be provided. For the complete list refer to Chapter 9 of the Constitution. The three aforementioned Articles are arguably the most significant responsibilities of the President and yet his powers are very limited. For instance, although Article 113 (bullet #1 above) states that this office is the second highest in the country that does not imply that the President’s level of authority is reflective of its position on the political hierarchy – for example, Iran’s President is not the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In all actuality, the only substantial power – in relation to the other branches of government – the President has is managing the nation’s budget, economy, and employment affairs – as Article 126 (bullet #3) explains.


Cabinet (cabinet) کابینت

The Members of the Cabinet, or the Council of Ministers, are chosen by the President. They must be approved by the Parliament, who also have the power to impeach a cabinet member.[6] Member of the President’s Cabinet are:

  1. Minister of Culture
  2. Minister of Petroleum
  3. Minister of Foreign Affairs
  4. Minister of Agriculture
  5. Minister of Communication
  6. Minister of Defense
  7. Minister of Finance
  8. Minister of Education
  9. Minister of Energy
  10. Minister of Business
  11. Minister of Atomic Energy
  12. Minister of Cultural Heritage & Tourism
  13. Minister of Economic
  14. Minister of Environmental Protection
  15. Minister of Executive Affairs
  16. Minister of International
  17. Minister of Legal
  18. Minister of Martyrs & Veterans
  19. Minister of Parliamentary
  20. Minister of National Elites
  21. Minister of Supervision & Strategic
  22. Minister of Women & Family Affairs
  23. Minister of Health
  24. Minister of Industry, Mines, and Trade
  25. Minister of Intelligence
  26. Minister of Interior
  27. Minister of Justice
  28. Minister of Labor
  29. Minister of Science
  30. Minister of Transportation
  31. Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs

Parliament (majlis-e shora-ye eslami) مجلس شورای اسلامی

The 290 members of Parliament, or Majlis, are vetted by the Guardian Council and elected by popular vote every four years. The parliament has the power to introduce and pass laws, which must be approved by the Guardian Council. MPs can also recommend amendments to bills, ratify international treaties, draft legislation, and approve the national budget. The Parliament also has the power to summon and impeach ministers or the President.[vii]


Guardian Council (shora-ye negahbaan) شورای نگهبان

This is the most influential body in Iran and is currently controlled by conservatives. It consists of six theologians, conscious of the present needs and the issues of the day, to be selected by the Supreme Leader; and six jurists, specializing in different areas of law, to be elected by the Parliament from among the Muslim jurists nominated by the Head of the Judicial Power.[viii] The Guardian Council has the authority to approve all bills and legislation passed by Parliament and can veto any if it deems it inconsistent with the Constitution and Islamic Law. The Council also supervises elections with the power to dismiss potential candidates from standing in elections for Parliament, the Presidency, and the Assembly of Experts.


Assembly of Experts (majlis-e khobregan) مجلس خبرگان

The Assembly (or Council) of Experts appoints the Supreme Leader, monitors his performance and removes him if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties. The Assembly meets – at a minimum – for one week each year. The eighty-something (although consistently in the eighties, the exact number of members has fluctuated from term to term) cleric-only members are elected by the electorate for an eight year term. And similar to the President and MPs, candidates for the Assembly are vetted by the Guardian Council. Currently the Assembly is dominated by conservatives.[ix]


Expediency Council (majmo tashkhis-e maslahat-e nizam) مجمع تشخیص مصلحت نظام

The Expediency Council is an advisory body for the Supreme Leader with an ultimate adjudicating power in disputes over legislation between the Parliament and the Guardian Council. The Supreme Leader appoints its thirty-something (although consistently in the thirties, the exact number of members has fluctuated from term to term) members for a five year term, who are prominent religious, social, and political figures. In October of 2005, the Supreme Leader gave the Expediency Council supervisory powers over all branches of the government – delegating some of his own authority as is permitted in the Constitution.[x] This move has strengthened the bond between the Supreme Leader and his cronies.


Head of Judiciary (rais ghooy-e ghazaai) رئیس قوه قضاییه

Although it is claimed to be independent, the Iranian judiciary has never been independent of political influence. After the revolution, the Supreme Court revoked all previous laws that were deemed un-Islamic and ever since, laws have been based on Shia and Sharia Law. The judiciary ensures that the Islamic Laws are enforced, and defines legal policy. It also nominates the six jurists members for the Guardian Council.[xi] Chapter 11 of the Constitution is devoted to the judiciary. Of the nineteen Articles, eight discuss the Head of the Judiciary. Of those eight, Articles 157 and 158 provide an understanding as to the capacity within which the Head of Judiciary can operate:

In order to fulfill the responsibilities of the judiciary power in all the matters concerning judiciary, administrative, and executive areas, the [Supreme] Leader shall appoint a just Mujtahid well versed in judiciary affairs and possessing prudence. And administrative abilities as the head of the judiciary power for a period of five years who shall be the highest judicial authority. The head of the judiciary branch is responsible for establishing the organizational structure necessary for the administration of justice commensurate with the responsibilities mentioned under Article 156. [He shall] draft judiciary bills appropriate for the Islamic Republic. And employ just and worthy judges, their dismissal, appointment, transfer, assignment to particular duties, promotions, and carrying out similar administrative duties, in accordance with the law.[xii]

In recent years, the hardliners have used the judicial system to undermine reforms by imprisoning reformist and journalists, and closing down reformist papers.


Armed Forces (niruha-ye mosallah) نیروهای مسلح

The armed forces comprise of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the National Army (consisting of the army, navy, and air force). These two bodies are under a joint general command. All leading army and Revolutionary Guard commanders are appointed by the Supreme Leader, who is also the commander-in-chief. The Revolutionary Guard was formed after the 1979 revolution to protect the new leaders and institutions as well as to fight those opposing the revolution. The Revolutionary Guard has a powerful presence in other institutions, and controls volunteer militias with branches in every town.[xiii]

Recent history has shown an evolution by the Revolutionary Guard, who have increased their capital and influence through savvy investments which have now given them the strength to enter the political arena. This newly acquired strength coupled with their relationship with their boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has introduced a new reality in Tehran that perhaps the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader are planning a scenario where the former assumes control and influence over the vast majority of the Islamic Republic after the latter leaves office.


Supreme Leader (vali-e faghih) ولی فقیه

The role of the Supreme Leader in the Constitution is based on the ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini, who positioned the leader at the top of Iran’s political power structure. The Supreme Leader appoints the head of the judiciary, six of the twelve members of the powerful Guardian Council, the Friday prayer leaders, and the head of radio and television. As commander-in-chief he also appoints the commanders of all the armed forces. He also approves the election of Iran’s President. Although the Supreme Leader is not generally elected he is chosen by the Assembly of Experts.[xiv]

According to the Iranian Constitution, the following are the duties and powers of the Supreme Leader:

  1. Delineation of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran after consultation with the Nation’s Exigency Council
  2. Supervision over the proper execution of the general policies of the system
  3. Issuing decrees for national referenda
  4. Assuming supreme command of the armed forces
  5. Declaration of war and peace, and the mobilization of the armed forces.
  6. Appointment, dismissal, and acceptance of resignation of:
    1. The fuqaha’ on the Guardian Council
    2. The supreme judicial authority of the country
    3. The head of the radio and television network of the Islamic Republic of Iran
    4. The chief of the joint staff
    5. The chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps
    6. The supreme commanders of the armed forces
  7. Resolving differences between the three wings of the armed forces and regulation of their relations
  8. Resolving the problems, which cannot be solved by conventional methods, through the Nation’s Exigency Council
  9. Signing the decree formalizing the election of the President of the Republic by the people. The suitability of candidates for the Presidency of the Republic, with respect to the qualifications specified in the Constitution, must be confirmed before elections take place by the Guardian Council; and, in the case of the first term [of the Presidency], by the Leadership
  10. Dismissal of the’ President of the Republic, with due regard for the interests of the country, after the Supreme Court holds him guilty of the violation of his constitutional duties, or after a vote of the Islamic Consultative Assembly testifying to his incompetence on the basis of Article 89 of the Constitution.
  11. Pardoning or reducing the sentences of convicts, within the framework of Islamic criteria, on a recommendation [to that effect] from the Head of judicial power[xv]

The [Supreme] Leader may [also] delegate part of his duties and powers to another person – which he has done with the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council.

Conclusion

With the nine aforementioned branches of the Islamic Republic (not including the electorate) it is clear that power resides with only a handful of individuals within five of these branches (from least to most powerful): Assembly of Experts, Expedience Council, Head of Judiciary, Guardian Council, and the Supreme Leader. However, the complexity of this government will reveal itself once a deeper examination is conducted because although these offices are relatively powerful then the other four branches of government there are key individuals who possess just as much influence and power even though their political office does not reflect it. These concepts will be further expounded upon in the second part of this article.

End Notes

[1]http://www.iranchamber.com/government/laws/constitution.php (all references to the constitution will be directed to this website)

[2] Chapter 9, section 1, article 117 of the Iranian constitution.

[3] 9:1:113

[4] 9:1:125

[5] 9:1:126

[6]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/03/iran_power/html/cabinet.stm

[7]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/03/iran_power/html/parliament.stm

[8] 6:2:91

[9] Robin Wright, The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (New York, Random House, Inc., 2000), 70.

[10]Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (New York, Doubleday, 2008), 246-247.

[11]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/03/iran_power/html/head_judiciary.stm

[12] 9:157-158

[13]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/03/iran_power/html/forces.stm

[14]http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/03/iran_power/html/supreme_leader.stm

[15] 8:110

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