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Who Rules Iran? A Primer on the Islamic Republic's Power Structure

Democratic in Appearance, Theocratic in Character, Dictatorial in Intent


Iranian Child in Qom

The Iranian people appears to be the ultimate sovereign. Iran's government structure ensures that they're not.

Iranian politics are arcane, complex and at times contradictory. The Islamic Republic of Iran, in place since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, is neither a strongman dictatorship in the classic sense nor a constitutional democracy as it is understood in the West. Yet Iran has elements of both and more, such as an elected “Assembly of Experts,” comparable to the Vatican’s college of cardinals.

Put simply, Iranian governance is democratic in appearance, theocratic in character and dictatorial in intent, its energies and institutions delegated not from the pluralism of its richly cultured and varied population but funneled quite rigidly toward the safeguard of the Islamic revolution and subservience to it. The system’s complexities is in large part an effective if paradoxical way of disarming criticism of Iranian “democracy” while making it supremely difficult for reformers to break into the system and sway it their way.

Despite the complexities, Iran’s political system can be broken down into its various parts and understood for what it is. As of 2009, virtually every institution and office was dominated by conservatives.

Elected Offices

Iran’s electorate is presumably the ultimate sovereign. All Iranians 18 and older vote. Popular elections are held for the following:

President: Elected to a four-year term for a maximum of two terms in office. The Supreme Leader confirms the president’s election. Current president: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (since 2005). Next election scheduled for June 12, 2009.

Parliament, or Islamic Consultative Assembly: 290 representatives are elected to four-year terms. Last election held in March and April 2008. Parliament is currently led by Ali Larijani. Next parliamentary election scheduled for spring 2012.

Zoroastrians and Jews each are allotted one representative; Assyrian and Chaldean Christians jointly elect one representative; Armenian Christians get two representatives (one for the north of the country, one for the south). Parliament’s size may increase, but by no more than 20 members every 10 years.

Assembly of Experts: The 86-member assembly of clerics is elected to eight-year terms with two responsibilities: to elect a Supreme Leader when necessary, and to oversee the supreme leader’s performance. The assembly is currently led by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Though popularly elected, eligibility for election to the assembly is strictly regulated by the Guardian Council, which is itself appointed by the supreme leader, rendering the assembly into little more than a vassal to the supreme leader.

Appointed Offices Answerable to the President

Council of Ministers: The president names 22 ministers. Parliament confirms them. Ministers serve at the pleasure of the president.

Appointed Offices Answerable to the Supreme Leader

Head of the Judiciary: Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a conservative, was appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 1999, heads the judiciary and, in turn, appoints the heads of three powerful posts: The head of the Supreme Court (to a five-year term), the chief prosecutor (to a five-year term) and, on advice of parliament, six lay jurists in the Council of Guardians. Though a conservative, Shahroudi ended the practice of public stoning and public executions—both of which continue, but not publicly.

Council of Guardians: The Supreme Leader appoints six clerical members to the powerful council. Six lay members are appointed by the head of the judiciary (who is himself a supreme leader appointee). The council is the gatekeeper of Iranian democracy, approving or rejecting any candidate for the presidency, parliament or the Assembly of Experts. The council also reviews all laws passed by parliament, rejecting those it finds incompatible with Islamic law or the constitution.

Exigency Council: A 31-member council appointed by the supreme leader and convened at his discretion whenever the Council of the Guardians judges a proposed law to be against Islamic or constitutional law. The exigency council also considers any matter presented to it by the supreme leader. As such, it serves as a means, however cosmetic, of legitimizing decrees by the supreme leader.

Radio and Television: The supreme leader appoints and fires the head of television and radio in the Islamic Republic. A six-member council oversees the two media. The council’s members are appointed by the supreme leader, the head of the judiciary and parliament (two members each).

Revolutionary Guard Corps: The supreme leader appoints the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, responsible according to the constitution, “not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God's way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God's law throughout the world (this is in accordance with the Koranic verse "Prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and strings of horses, striking fear into the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them" [8:60]”

The Military: The supreme leader is the commander in chief of the Iranian armed forces. He appoints the military’s chief of staff and the supreme commander of the armed forces. He resolves differences between various wings of the armed forces. He holds the power to declare war—not parliament or the president.

Law Enforcement: The supreme leader appoints the commander of the nation’s law-enforcement forces.

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